Will Obama face a primary challenger in 2012?

President Obama has to worry both about the newly empowered Republicans and about the possibility of a primary challenger from his left. Sen. Russ Feingold is one name that has come up, although a spokesman has denied such plans currently.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
In this Sept. 28 file photo, Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin takes the stage before President Obama (unseen) speaks at a rally in Madison, Wis. After Senator Feingold lost his bid for a fourth term, he concluded his concession speech with, 'It’s on to 2012!' Was he hinting that he may run for president, presumably in a Democratic primary challenge against Mr. Obama?

It’s been a week since Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin lost his bid for a fourth term and concluded his concession speech with a ripsnorting call to action: “It’s on to the next fight. It’s on to the next battle. It’s on to 2012!”

Was Senator Feingold hinting that he may run for president, presumably in a Democratic primary challenge against President Obama? Or perhaps he was thinking the other senator from Wisconsin, Herb Kohl (D), may retire in 2012, and Feingold might compete for that seat? Or maybe he wasn’t thinking all that specifically, and just having a Howard Dean moment. Hard to believe it’s been almost seven years since the onetime Democratic presidential candidate delivered his famously over-exuberant concession speech in Iowa that ended with a screaming “Yeah!”

The day after the midterms, Feingold’s press secretary put out a statement maintaining that the senator “has no current plans to run for anything.” Notice the qualifier – “current.” That does not rule out a decision tomorrow to run for something.

And so the guessing game goes on. Mr. Obama, weakened by his midterm “shellacking,” has to worry both about the newly empowered Republicans and about the possibility of a primary challenge from his left. Former Governor Dean’s name was also floated as possible primary challenger, but his spokeswoman seemed more definitive: “He is absolutely, categorically not running in 2012.”

If someone halfway serious were to “primary” Obama, it could be devastating. President Ford was primaried by Ronald Reagan in 1976, sending a weakened Mr. Ford into the general election against Jimmy Carter, who beat him. President Carter was then primaried by Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who took his challenge all the way to the 1980 Democratic convention. Carter beat Mr. Kennedy, but lost in the general to Mr. Reagan.

Republicans are more than happy to suggest Obama will face a serious primary challenger. At a Monitor breakfast on Nov. 4, Republican pollster Bill McInturff floated Feingold’s name, mentioning the Afghanistan war (which Feingold opposes) and Obama’s failure to close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. Feingold is, after all, well known for staking out principled positions. He was the only senator to vote against the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act. And he bucked his own party this year in voting against financial regulatory reform, saying it didn’t go far enough in reining in Wall Street.

Democratic strategists are just as quick to shoot down a Feingold candidacy.

“My guess is you’re shellshocked. You’ve got a prepared speech and you don’t want to give it, so you throw out some crazy line like Howard Dean did,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic communications consultant. “I would call it a throwaway line.”

If Feingold did decide to run, he would have to be taken seriously, says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential historian at the University of Texas, Austin. But he’s not sure he sees the Wisconsinite taking the plunge.

“If he made a serious go at it, he’s smart enough and well enough informed and principled enough to stick to his guns,” Mr. Buchanan says. “But I’m not convinced he would want to do what he would realize would be a very damaging thing to his party.”

There’s another element to Obama’s expected reelection campaign that would make it especially difficult for a primary challenger to knock him out: the black vote. As the first African-American president, Obama is expected to hold on to the vast majority of black voters, a key part of the Democratic base.

Still, that may not stop primary challenges. Some suggest that Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio, who ran in 2008, may try again, though he would be seen as token opposition from the left. What about Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton? She has insisted every which way she has no intention of opposing the boss. And in the 2008 Democratic primary, she came in to the right of Obama.

All this is “Washington getting wee-weed up on the first day of a new election cycle that is two years away,” Feingold spokesman John Kraus said last week.

Perhaps. But in fact, if someone were to mount a serious challenge to Obama, he or she would need to get started pretty soon on organization and fundraising. All the jockeying on the GOP side of things shows the cycle has already started.

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