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Wisconsin's Russ Feingold Fights for his Political Life

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., speaks at a rally at the Library Mall at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis. Charles Dharapak/AP

In an ordinary mid-term election, in a usually progressive state like Wisconsin, in a race against an untested opponent, Sen. Russ Feingold should be sitting pretty.

But this is an extraordinary year--a year when Washington experience is an electoral cross to bear and in which "throw the bums out" seems to be the rallying cry.

It's an atmosphere that gives rise to candidates such as Ron Johnson, whose penetrating blue eyes and earnest demeanor are appealing to more and more Wisconsinites.

A new Ipsos poll says Johnson--a political neophyte--is leading 51 percent to 45 percent among likely voters with three weeks to go.

Johnson is the opposite of Feingold. Where Feingold supported the stimulus, Johnson thinks it was a terrible idea that ballooned the deficit. Where Feingold is a champion of the new health care reform, Johnson sees it as a step toward European socialism and a threat to the existing health system itself. And, where Feingold supports efforts to deal with climate change, Johnson isn't sure there is such a thing as global warming.

The two went at it Monday night in Wausau in a very contentious debate. It was a confrontation that revealed an unusual aggressiveness on the part of Feingold -- an aggressiveness that suggested Feingold is behind, and knows it.

He was asked about his tone afterwards, but denied he was aggressive or behind.

"According to what," asked a reporter.

"According to me," Feingold said with a big smile.

(Watch Dean Reynolds' report from the CBS Evening News at left.)

But the senator is in trouble. However much he and his aides stress that they are winning on the issues, he is in serious jeopardy of losing his seat.

Feingold is something of a good-government policy wonk who steamrolled Johnson, owner of a plastics business in Oshkosh, in the debate. But the senator's very expertise is testament to his 18 years in Washington that many independents--to say nothing of Tea Partiers--now find suspect.

"I think you just have people who are saying to themselves, you know, 'I'm tired of the incumbent party,' and Feingold represents that to many people here," said Eric Giordano of the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service.

Feingold is pressing ahead and relying on help from the Obamas--the president last month and the first lady this week.

He needs all the help he can get.

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Dean Reynolds is a CBS News correspondent based in Chicago. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.
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