The crowd at the Democratic Party's annual dinner in western Wisconsin's Vernon County was large, loud and longing for a little partisan passion.
Far from feeling beat down by the November presidential election result, the more than 100 rural Democrats who gathered in small city of Viroqua this week were ready to fight against the war in Iraq, against economic policies that favor big business over working people and family farmers and against the warping of the public discourse by a media that is more concerned about Scott Peterson's conviction than the future of Social Security.
Unfortunately, they couldn't find many reflections of their grassroots passion in the current leadership of the Democratic Party. The sense that the time had come for a fresh face was palpable.
When I met with the Vernon County activists – most of whom were Democrats but some of whom were interested Greens and independents – their response to my suggestion that the county needs a real opposition party was immediate and enthusiastic.
These rural Democrats even had a suggestion for the who should lead that opposition. And it wasn't Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. When I was describing what a serious opposition party would stand for at this moment in history--starting with an absolute rejection of the war in Iraq and empire building and going on to a passionate defense of civil liberties and a willingness to stand up to multinational corporations--a bearded fellow in the crowd shouted, "We've got someone who can do it--the only senator who voted against the Patriot Act: Russ Feingold."
The crowd cheered.
And they aren't alone. While it might be predictable that Wisconsin Democrats would be excited by the prospect of their just-reelected senator seeking the presidency, the buzz about a possible Feingold for President campaign in 2008 is growing nationally.
Hotline, the online bible of inside-the-beltway political junkies, just featured a commentary in which the editors suggested that Wisconsin's junior senator – who has been outspoken in his criticism not just of the Patriot Act but of the war in Iraq and the corporate free-trade agenda -- could be a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. Noting that, against serious opposition, Feingold ran more than 140,000 votes ahead of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in Wisconsin, a source told Hotline, "He just accomplished an impressive victory in a heartland swing state in a year that wasn't so kind to (Democrats)." The source went on to suggest that Feingold "will be looked at as a new voice for the party as it moves forward."
Over at www.mydd.com, a popular Democratic website, political writer Chris Bowers observes, "Feingold is in an odd position. Even though he has won three terms in the US Senate, he actually is still known as a "reformer" and an "outsider," due in no small part to the constant repetition of the "McCain-Feingold" legislation in the national media. Because of this reputation, among all Democratic Senators, except perhaps (newly-elected Illinois Sen. Barack) Obama, I think he would be the best bet to capture the non-ideological reformers that I believe are a key to future Democratic success."
The interest in a Feingold candidacy has even sparked the development of a "Russ Feingold for President" Internet forum.
So will Feingold run? The man is not without ambition. He thought about seeking the presidency in 2004, but backed off before the contest really got started.
As the jockeying begins for 2008--and, make no mistake, the jockeying has begun--it is a safe bet that Feingold will again ponder a run. And with the unsolicited support that he's getting from his home state and elsewhere, he might well be inspired this time to do more than just explore a candidacy.