Reformer in unexpected struggle Taking the high road may put Wis. senator in danger of losing seat

October 29, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. -- For a man who has crusaded for campaign-finance reform, for running on positive themes and for avoiding expensive negative ads, Sen. Russell D. Feingold sure sounds like he's having second thoughts.

In a last-minute rush and in fear of losing his seat, Feingold, who refused to take money for negative ads from outside groups, is going negative on the stump. But he sounds almost apologetic for his attacks against Republican Rep. Mark W. Neumann.

"I realize it puts me in danger that I don't get up and say all these negative things on TV," he sheepishly tells a polite crowd at the Sheboygan Senior Center that just heard him go after Neumann on everything from proposed cuts in Medicare to ending aid for the poor. "But I have faith in the people of this state."

Neumann, while pledging some financial restraint of his own, has gladly accepted millions of dollars in advertising from special-interest groups intent on knocking off a Democratic incumbent and has happily gone negative in his own ads.

On Tuesday, Feingold will discover whether living by his preachings was more foolish than noble. In an election year where races are being fought on local issues and no sweeping national themes have emerged, Feingold's struggle for re-election may provide one of the only meaningful lessons to emerge from campaign '98.

"Feingold, by taking this stand, has issued a challenge to the whole political establishment, to see if anyone can run under these conditions," said Kenneth Mayer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a Feingold sympathizer. "If he had run as a typical incumbent, he'd be up by 15 points right now, and we wouldn't even be talking."

So far, at least, integrity seems to have only placed Feingold in real danger of losing his seat.

Feingold and Neumann are locked in a dead heat, "about as dead heat as anything I've ever seen," Neumann declared. A poll released yesterday found Neumann ahead, 46 percent to 43 percent. Another poll released Oct. 26 showed Feingold up 47 percent to 40 percent.

A year ago, by most predictions, the Senate race in Wisconsin was not supposed to be a contest at all. Although he is just completing his first term, Feingold fit in well with the state's progressive traditions and flare for reform. He shares top billing on Congress' most ambitious campaign finance overhaul bill with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The campaign finance battle was supposed to give Feingold a squeaky clean, outsider image.

His challenger, a bookish, former mathematics teacher, has proven himself to be one of the House's staunchest conservatives. But Neumann has his own maverick streak, constantly jousting with GOP leaders on spending bills that he considered too bloated in size and scope. Last year, Neumann refused to support Newt Gingrich's re-election as House speaker.

That streak of righteousness has earned Neumann a devoted following, but his abrasive tactics were expected to grate on civil Wisconsonites in a statewide race. When a robust Midwestern economy was added to the equation, Feingold appeared likely to cruise to re-election. In most state polls this summer, the senator held a lead of up to 15 percentage points.

But that was before Aug. 11, when Neumann assaulted the airwaves with a barrage of advertisements that painted Feingold as a profligate spender on anything from cow-flatulence research to Russian space monkeys. Neumann, on the other hand, introduced himself to the state as a thoughtful fiscal moderate out to save Social Security from free-spending Democrats and rescue future generations from a crushing national debt.

"I've been waiting all my life for someone to say what he's saying," said Steve Sievers, who gave $2,000 to Neumann's campaign -- the first time he has contributed that much money to a candidate.

In response to the ads, Feingold did very little. Environmental groups splashed the airwaves with a few ads painting Neumann as a polluter. But Neumann and his allies largely had the television time to themselves, just when an incumbent is usually trying to throw the challenger on his heels.

Both men pledged to limit their expenditures to $1 per registered voter, or about $3.8 million. But while Feingold tried to discourage so-called "independent expenditures," Neumann did nothing to stop allies such as the National Rifle Association and anti-abortion groups from pouring in at least $1 million in unregulated "soft money" on his behalf.

By the time Feingold aired his first response to pro-Neumann ads, the average Wisconsin voter had already seen 20 ads against him, by some estimates.

And Feingold has remained outgunned. Last month, when Feingold shelled out $6,000 for a week's advertisements on the NBC affiliate in Madison, Neumann countered with his own $4,600 purchase, and the Republican Party joined in with another $15,368 in commercials the same week.

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