Focus In on Wisconsin

The Senate race in Wisconsin deserves a little extra attention. Not only do the candidates, incumbent Russell Feingold, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Mark Neumann, present sharp philosophical contrasts. Their race spotlights a key issue: campaign-spending reform.

The spotlight is on largely because Senator Feingold, with Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, authored a far-reaching reform bill that succumbed to a filibuster this year in the Senate. In a move many consider politically suicidal, the Wisconsin senator has made a point of rejecting aid from his party's "soft money" accounts.

"Soft money," you may recall, refers to funds that can be contributed in unlimited quantities by corporations, unions, and others to party organizations for so-called "party building," as opposed to direct support for candidates. Typically, however, millions of party soft dollars pay for ads designed to boost individual campaigns.

To both candidates' credit, they've agreed to limit their own spending to $1 per registered voter in Wisconsin (some 3.8 million) and to raise no more than 25 percent of their money out of state. Both are known as political-maverick politicians in a state famous for that breed. Mr. Neumann, a House member, has often been a thorn in Speaker Gingrich's side.

It should be added, too, that while Feingold has disavowed national party help with ads, outside groups like the Sierra Club have run pro-Feingold advocacy spots. Their spending, however, pales besides what the National Republican Senatorial Committee is lavishing on Neumann.

We're not pulling for one side or the other in Wisconsin - just underscoring an important case study of how money, and the money issue, plays in US politics. And this in a year when soft-money contributions to the major parties are on track to more than double their previous midterm-election high in 1994 - $175 million so far, versus $75 million four years ago.

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