When Democratic voters in the state of Washington were polled last month about the 2008 presidential race, their top choice was Hillary Clinton.
No shock there.
The surprise involved another Senate Democrat.
Wisconsin's Russ Feingold was named by 11% of those surveyed, behind only Clinton (31%), Al Gore (19%) and John Edwards (12%), three far more prominent political figures.
"He seems to have a dedicated following," said David Johnson, whose polling in a half-dozen states has charted a small but steady uptick in Feingold's numbers since last fall.
More than a year into the process of testing the presidential waters, the junior senator from Wisconsin remains a dark horse in a field studded with bigger names and deeper pockets. Many party insiders are hugely skeptical of his prospects.
But at the same time, Feingold has begun to build a constituency outside Wisconsin and has positioned himself to play a potentially significant role in the race for the Democratic nomination.
His early call for withdrawal from Iraq, his filibuster against the USA Patriot Act and his push to censure the president over wiretapping have made him a favorite of liberal bloggers and online activists, who constitute a rising voice in the party.
Time and again, he has used his position as minority lawmaker to raise his national profile, set himself apart from other senators and carve out a political identity that has obvious appeal to many in the party's base.
"He has had a good year," said GOP pollster Bill McInturff, who has worked for dark horse candidates on the Republican side, most recently John McCain in 2000. Just as McCain's objective was to wind up as the alternative to front-runner George W. Bush in the GOP primaries, Feingold will be vying to be the "Clinton alternative" for Democratic voters, especially for those on the anti-war left, say analysts in both parties.
Opening for anti-war candidate
"Besides Mrs. Clinton, who is sort of the 800-pound gorilla, among that group (of others), he's certainly as plausible as anyone," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who worked for both John Kerry and Dick Gephardt in the 2004 campaign.
"There's a real opening for somebody who's against the war. And he was against the war at the beginning," Elmendorf said. "The test for him is can he raise money?"
Because of the sharp stands he has taken on divisive issues, Feingold's potential candidacy is proving to be a Rorschach test, perceived very differently by different elements in the party.
On the nation's most popular liberal Web site, the Daily Kos, Feingold has been dominating straw polls among the blog's readers, winning the May-June poll with 44% of the vote. (Clinton, under fire on the left for backing the war, got 2%.)
"He kind of understands where people are in this political moment in the rank and file of the Democratic Party . . . that (politicians) need to be bold, to stand up for what they believe in," said Eli Pariser, executive director of the liberal group MoveOn.org, which claims 3 million members.
Pariser said when his group surveyed its membership recently, Feingold ranked among the four or five most popular political figures, along with Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Pariser said the organization is a "long way" from deciding whom it might support in 2008, but cited Feingold, Edwards and Gore as Democrats who could "catch the wind" on the left. Gore has said he has no plans to run.
But the same qualities that endear Feingold to the Democratic base lead many political professionals to regard him as unelectable.
Doubts inside the Beltway about Feingold's viability have been pronounced.
In May, the non-partisan National Journal surveyed a group of more than 100 Democratic insiders - a mix of consultants, activists and members of Congress, many of them highly experienced veterans of presidential politics.
The question was, "Who has the best chance to be your party's nominee?"
Feingold finished behind 10 other Democrats, some of whom have drawn far less "buzz" and attention from the party rank-and-file.
In a similar barometer of insider opinion, ABC's political unit in March gave Feingold the worst odds among 11 Democratic candidates of winning his party's nomination. Among the biggest marks it cited against him: a perceived vulnerability on national security issues, low name ID, poor endorsement prospects, and doubts about whether, if nominated, he could return the White House to Democrats.
"I think there's heavy skepticism (among insiders) that someone like Russ Feingold can win a general election," Elmendorf said.
If Democratic primary voters find themselves sharing that skepticism, then the issue of electability could limit Feingold's appeal even among those who share his politics.
Feingold says that if he ran, he would expect primary voters to consider such questions.
"I understand and respect that," he said in an interview. "I do think that this is a central dilemma for Democrats in '06 and '08. Do you somehow believe you do better if you go with someone you think is 'electable' . . . or somebody who provides more excitement and a different approach?"
"I want to state this modestly, but I'm really astonished at how well things have gone," Feingold said, citing his support on the Internet, his reception in places such as Iowa and New Hampshire, and some early '08 polling.
Presidential surveys this far out are unreliable predictors, and shaped heavily by name recognition. In a national Gallup Poll last month, 3% of Democratic voters picked Feingold as their choice for president. Clinton, Gore, Edwards and Kerry - all big names nationally - were the only Democrats above 4%.
State polls show progress
But Feingold has found encouragement in a series of independent state polls done by Strategic Vision of Atlanta, a Republican outfit that is churning out regular public surveys to market itself to future clients. The firm is polling almost monthly on the '06 and '08 elections in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Florida and Georgia, providing a unique source of early presidential trend lines at the state level.
The trend for Feingold among likely Democratic voters is up in virtually every one of those states since last fall. In Washington state, where Feingold traveled in May, he is up from 4% in September to 8% in February to 11% in June. State party chairman Dwight Pelz called that an "impressive showing," since Feingold "is clearly the least known" of the top Democrats in the poll.
In New Jersey, Feingold is up from 1% in October to 6% in April to 8% in June. In Pennsylvania, he has gone from 1% in September to 6% in March and June.
Feingold did less well in a Des Moines Register poll May 29-June 1 of likely 2008 caucus-goers, drawing 3%. He travels to Iowa next Saturday and Sunday.
Setting Wisconsin aside, in six states where Strategic Vision polled in June - Washington, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Georgia - Feingold averaged 7% among likely Democratic voters. That put him behind Clinton (who averaged 33%), Gore (18%) and Edwards (14%), but ahead of 2004 nominee Kerry (6%), former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (3%) and numerous other Democrats at 1% or 2%.
McInturff calls Feingold's showing in these state polls "a legitimate little blip" and says that "you cannot underestimate what it means to be in high single digits as a starting point."
But he and other analysts note that a Feingold candidacy will face many questions: his ability to match the financial and support networks of national figures such as Clinton and Edwards; how much he could raise on the Internet; and the political costs and benefits of taking lonely positions (censure, withdrawal from Iraq, support for gay marriage).
"I'm not doing this in order to position myself. Those positions are my positions, and they are underrepresented" in the party, Feingold said.
© 2006, Journal Sentinel Inc.