The quiet force in campaign-finance fight

The Wisconsin Democrat may get fewer headlines than McCain, but he could become an even bigger star.

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Sen. Russell Feingold (D) has been sitting quietly listening to himself speak for about 30 seconds, when his eyes roll upward with a self-mocking sarcasm. He's just taped the Democratic response to President Bush's weekly radio address, calling on the president to support campaign-finance reform, and he's noticing a few fumbled lines on the playback.

"Well, it's early," he says with a smile. It's only 8 in the morning, but Senator Feingold has been at the office for some time already. After this, he is off to a meeting of 10 senators to plot strategy - and then on to the Senate floor for yet another day of debate.

"My life has been like 'Groundhog Day' lately," he says. "Get up, have breakfast, go to the floor, have lunch, go back to the floor, have dinner, go to bed, get up, and do it all again."

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It has been a week of long days and late nights for the junior senator from Wisconsin, who is the less-known sponsor of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill. But the potential payoff - reforming the way money is donated in politics - is worth the long hours, he says. He's "just happy to be a part of the effort."

If all goes as planned, this week the bill he and Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) have drafted and redrafted is finally going to a vote on the Senate floor. And though it is usually Senator McCain who gets the headlines, the stakes may actually be higher for Feingold, who jokingly calls himself "John McCain's little brother."

Democrats' rising star

McCain the war hero lends a celebrity sheen to campaign-finance reform, but at 64, some feel his moment in American politics was the 2000 campaign, particularly since he is unlikely to challenge Mr. Bush in 2004. But the 48-year-old Feingold, a former Rhodes Scholar and self-described progressive, has a more open road ahead of him.

Of all the rising stars in the Democratic Party, Feingold is one of the most unlikely. As his party moves to the center, trying to learn from Bill Clinton's ability to triangulate between left and right, Feingold takes pride in holding to the left's more liberal traditions.

"I am a descendent of this political tradition, and I'm just trying to keep it alive," he says.

The senator's personal hero and political benchmark is not John Kennedy or even Franklin Roosevelt, but "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, the progressive Wisconsin governor and senator from the early 20th century. LaFollette, a Republican union supporter and staunch opponent of World War I, was respected among his colleagues and has been judged kindly by history, but in his lifetime he marginalized himself politically by being unwilling to bend. In 1924, LaFollette ran for president as an independent, his own party no longer wanting him.

"Here's the thing," says Feingold, pointing to a portrait of LaFollette outside the Senate chamber. "You have to decide whether it's more important to stay in the building and compromise and get things accomplished, or whether it's more important to drive a point through."

It's a question not without relevance for Feingold, who often seems to value his personal beliefs above his own political well-being. In 1998, when running for reelection, he practiced what he himself proposed. He refused unregulated financial aid from his party, while the GOP poured in money to his opponent. The result: He barely squeaked out a win against an opponent that he was once clobbering in the polls.

This habit of following his own path in many ways makes Feingold a perfect fit with McCain. The "maverick" label McCain wears so proudly also fits the senator from Wisconsin, who has stood up to his party when he felt he had to.

At the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, Feingold made a point of going on the radio to attack his party for its use of unregulated contributions. More recently, he was one of the few Democrats to support the nomination of John Ashcroft, the conservative former Missouri senator, to be attorney general.

For the past two months, McCain and Feingold have been traveling the country, holding town meetings in hope of stirring support for campaign-finance reform outside of Washington. Both men are deeply committed to the cause, but their approaches vary. McCain is the wry, wink-and-a-nod salesman, while Feingold brings a self-effacing persona and a quiet earnestness to the events.

A happy partnership

From the very beginning of their working together, he and McCain "just clicked," he says. And while he is happy to let McCain have most of the limelight, the two are equals in all discussions.

"Russ Feingold was willing to put his entire political career on the line for something he believed in," McCain told a town-meeting crowd in Annapolis, Md., expressing his admiration for Feingold's 1998 Senate run. "There aren't many people who would do that."

Feingold says his experiences with McCain have been good for him in another way: They have forced him to think before he speaks and learn how to work in tandem with another person. The Senate, which is often thought of as home to 100 elected free agents, does not always produce a lot of sustained partnerships, especially across the aisle.

The two men say their partnership will continue in the future as they work for further reforms, some outside of their signature area of campaign finance. But should campaign-finance reform become law, Feingold's future may lie more in solo efforts.

As the Democratic Party begins casting about for a presidential candidate, Feingold will have some interesting points on his resume - a reformer with a concrete accomplishment who can work with Republicans and who lives by the rules he proposes.

And while Feingold says he has "always thought no," on a run for the White House - because he'd "rather support the candidate than be the candidate for president that would advance a more progressive agenda," - he outlines the positions he believes in, such as opposition to the death penalty. "There would be a 1 percent chance at this point that I would want to be that person," he says. "There are a few people talking to me about it back home, but to me, what I'm doing here is working."

"It would be hard to convince myself and probably even harder to convince others," he adds with a smile.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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