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George F. Will: Feingold could be Democrats' ticket

WASHINGTON — After winning, at the relatively tender age of 51, a third Senate term in 2004 with 55 percent of Wisconsin's vote, five points better than John Kerry's winning percentage, and carrying 27 of the 45 Wisconsin counties that President Bush carried, Russ Feingold went to play golf — on a public course, this fastidious populist stresses — in Greenville, Ala. That town might hereafter be known as the birthplace of Feingold's epiphany.

Feingold says, implausibly, that "I don't think about it" — seeking the Democrats' 2008 presidential nomination — "very much." But he does brood about a "50-state strategy" for Democrats. He found many Alabamians with problems common to Americans everywhere, and receptive to "progressive" solutions.

Well, yes. Hundreds of thousands of Alabamians always vote Democratic. John Kerry won 693,933. Al Gore, 692,611. Even George McGovern won 256,923. There are "progressives" everywhere, and in the Deep South there still are "yellow dog Democrats" who would vote for a yellow dog if it were on the Democratic ticket. But Democratic presidential candidates have lost Alabama in 10 of the past 11 elections — a Georgian carried the state in 1976. Today, by the time a Democratic presidential aspirant has genuflected at all the altars erected by "the groups" — the organizations of liberal activists — he or she is disqualified from turning red states blue.

A good liberal — the Senate's most pure, according to the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, whose rating of his career (97) is higher than that of Ted Kennedy (90), Barbara Boxer (92), John Kerry (93) and Hillary Clinton (95) — Feingold is a conscientious recycler. Of chimeras. For example, he favors energy "independence," a goal that has steadily receded in the more than three decades since President Richard Nixon endorsed it.

He also favors fiscal responsibility. His office wall is adorned with a large display of the 82-point — yes, 82 — plan for reducing the deficit, a plan featured in his first Senate campaign in 1992, when Ross Perot was helpfully rampant on the subject of balanced budgets. But fiscal rectitude, a faith constantly avowed but rarely constraining, thrills few liberals — or conservatives, on current evidence.

Still, Feingold is as Wisconsin, and in some ways as admirable, as Leinenkugel's beer. Since Robert La Follette Sr. became governor 104 years ago, Wisconsin has frequently produced politicians, such as former Sen. William Proxmire, who flamboyantly favor, not always convincingly, both progressive policies — e.g., workers' compensation, the income tax — and government frugality.

Feingold became luminous in the eyes of "the groups," who consider most congressional Democrats spineless, by casting the only Senate vote against the Patriot Act. But he peeved those people by voting to confirm John Roberts as chief justice, and his presidential aspirations could be injured by the chief justice casting the deciding vote in some 5-4 ruling offensive to "the groups." Such as one overturning the political speech-rationing apparatus erected by the main reason Feingold is a familiar name — the McCain-Feingold law.

Regarding Iraq, Feingold believes, plausibly, that opposition is growing fastest where recent Democratic presidential candidates have been weakest, in rural and small town America — he recently found it simmering in Pickerel, Wis. — where a disproportionate number of the combat forces are from. Although he supported the invasion of Afghanistan, and says "the fight against terror is America's No. 1 priority," he was one of 21 Democratic senators who voted against the Iraq War and now is to the left of most Democratic senators in demanding that the Bush administration define metrics of success and in asking that Bush set a timetable for meeting them. Feingold proposes the target date of Dec. 31, 2006, for withdrawal.

But he has a problem to his left. The anti-war movement is apt to exert a perhaps ruinous gravitational pull on the 2008 intraparty competition.

Cindy Sheehan, surely a Republican mole toiling to make the anti-war position repulsive, starred at a Washington rally that featured exactly two speakers from Congress — including Cynthia McKinney, the Georgia Democrat who darkly hints that Bush may have known that the 9/11 attacks were coming and welcomed them as a boost for defense-industry stocks owned by "persons close to" his administration. In 2008, the many Democratic activists who vibrate like tuning forks to such stimuli will find their

Howard Dean, some firebrand who will force, or tempt, other candidates to move in his direction. If that person is not Feingold, the country could conceivably have this contest: McCain vs. Feingold.

George Will's e-mail address is Washington Post Writers Group