Like the Back of His Hand"


Racine, Wis.-- Democratic State Sen. Russ Feingold is walking down Main Street when a burly bartender suddenly bursts out the door of a saloon across the street, holds up the back of his left hand, points with a right-hand finger to the base of the hand and shouts: "Hey, Russ, you're in Racine right now!"

This gesture would be baffling to most outsiders, but it is easily decipherable to any Wisconsin voter who has been watching Mr. Feingold's television ads in his campaign to unseat 12-year Republican Sen. Bob Kasten on Nov. 3. The Democratic nominee, campaigning on the slogan that he "knows Wisconsin like the back of his hand," in his ads has been holding up the back of his left hand -- which resembles the map of Wisconsin -- and pointing to the city he will be visiting next.

The gimmick, along with a series of humorous ads showing him going around the state asking voters what they think, has made this little-known state legislator an instant celebrity to Wisconsin's avid television watchers. The phenomenon illustrates once again the power of television as a short cut to voters' awareness and approval, with a minimum of actual substance given on a candidate's record or proposals.

The use of clever television ads catapulted Mr. Feingold into a landslide upset primary victory in early September over two better-known, well-financed candidates who attacked each other relentlessly, leaving both prostrate and Mr. Feingold with an astounding 70 percent of the vote.

Now he is turning the same device against Mr. Kasten, a veteran conservative who came to the Senate on the coattails of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and barely survived on his own in 1986 as a Reagan loyalist. Now he is seeking re-election on the ticket with an embattled incumbent Republican president whom he seldom mentions -- except to say he voted against the budget deal President Bush now says was a mistake.

Mr. Feingold, on the strength of his huge primary victory, jumped a remarkable 23-point lead in a Milwauakee Journal poll taken immediately after the primary, and Mr. Kasten has been working diligently to whittle it down ever since, touring the state by bus and painting his opponent as a wild liberal Democratic tax-and-spender who is soft on crime.

Mr. Kasten, notorious as a negative campaigner, has filled the airwaves with attacks on Mr. Feingold's bold proposal to cut the federal deficit with a combination of $323 billion in new taxes over five years, which Mr. Kasten always mentions, and $684 billion in spending cuts, which Mr. Kasten never talks about.

Using the campaign slogan, "Dare to Compare," the Republican incumbent insists that his whole campaign is based on comparing his record in the U.S. Senate with that of his opponent's in the Wisconsin Senate -- an unchallengeably legitimate campaign tactic.

But Mr. Feingold tells audiences that Mr. Kasten repeatedly misrepresents his positions. Nevertheless, with voters knowing

so little about the 10-year state legislator from the Madison area, long a base of Democratic liberalism, the Republican incumbent's attacks appear to have begun to cut.

The latest Milwaukee Journal poll out last Sunday had Mr. Feingold's lead reduced to only 3 percent with a margin of sampling error of 5 percent. Bob Decheine, Mr. Feingold's campaign director, says this poll is way off the mark and his candidate is still far ahead. Mr. Kasten's manager, Paul Welday, also disagrees with the Journal poll, saying his candidate is still about 9 percent behind, but gaining.

Although the campaign began with a focus on the economy, Mr. Kasten has pushed to the fore his opponent's positions on taxes and crime, with one particularly controversial episode by the Kasten campaign on crime that has caused the Feingold campaign to charge the senator with hitting a new low in negative tactics.

A telephone survey firm hired by the Kasten campaign began calling voters to identify Kasten supporters. One of those receiving a call was Jeff Neubauer, the Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman. According to Mr. Neubauer, the caller inquired whether he would support "someone who voted for putting mass murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer back on the street after 13 years and four months."

The reference was to Wisconsin's notorious serial killer, and the question referred to a vote by Mr. Feingold against a state bill requiring life sentences without parole in certain capital crimes. Mr. Kasten said the use of Mr. Dahmer's name was "a mistake" and he ordered the reference stopped, but Mr. Feingold says it was intentional, in keeping with Mr. Kasten's reputation for such tactics.

With barely more than a week to go, Mr. Feingold is still expected to win, but Mr. Kasten is hammering hard at the Democrat on taxes and crime in a high-tax, high-welfare state particularly sensitive to both issues. Voters continue to laugh at the Feingold ads, but Mr. Kasten is doing his best to convince them that electing a little-known liberal from the Madison area is no laughing matter.

Jules Witcover covers national politics for The Baltimore Sun.

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