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Feingold heartens activists in Iowa with tough-talking attacks
By MIKE GLOVER, Associated Press
JOHNSTON, Iowa - Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold energized Democratic activists in Iowa Saturday, touting his "moderate, responsible" effort to censure President Bush and arguing that his brand of hard-hitting activism has been ratified at the polls.
"My message and the way I've conducted myself in Washington was tested in Wisconsin in 2004," Feingold said, in an interview with The Associated Press. "I had three Republicans spend $11 million attacking me for having voted against the USA Patriot Act, voting against the Iraq war."
In that campaign, Feingold said he met charges head-on without seeking middle ground on the sensitive issue of combatting the war on terror.
"I carried 27 counties that George Bush carried and was elected by 300,000 votes," Feingold said. "The message has resonated and I am not somebody who is just one party."
Feingold is spending two days in Iowa, raising money for local officials and making the round of Democratic district conventions on Saturday - events that are attended by the hardest core of Democratic activists.
"People want the Democrats to stand up," Feingold said. "They are tired of us playing it too careful, or we don't stand up for what we believe."
Feingold brought a few hundred activists to their feet repeatedly as he reiterated his opposition to the war in Iraq and recalled his votes against free trade agreements that he said amounted to little more than shipping American jobs abroad.
The noisiest response came when he defended his effort to censure Bush, a move that some strategists worry may make Democrats look extreme.
"We shouldn't be afraid to stand up for that," Feingold said. "A lot of the pollsters and pundits in Washington say don't touch that, but I think that is just wrong."
Feingold has been traveling in some states that play an early role in the presidential nominating process as he tests the waters for a run at the Democratic nomination for president.
Feingold said he has held town meetings in each of Wisconsin's 72 counties every year, a slice of retail politics that is duplicated in Iowa by Republican U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley.
Campaigning for the Iowa's precinct caucuses is typically a retail operation, where key activists expect to meet candidates personally and have their questions answered before making a decision on who to back.
"That's what I love to do the most," Feingold said. "This place is like Wisconsin to me."
Feingold argued that his approach ought to be shared by the Democratic congressional leadership.
"I love and respect my colleagues on Congress, but we maybe have to apply a little tough love here," said Feingold. Too often, when Bush criticizes Democrats, "the Democratic leaders too often go into their foxhole," he said.
"The administration is not good at governing the country, but they are really good at intimidation," said Feingold. "We need to stand up to that administration and their intimidation. The bill of rights was no repealed on 9/11."
In addition to raising money, Feingold was meeting privately with key activists like Mark Smith, head of the Iowa Federation of Labor.
"It's nice to have someone around who is willing to stand up to President Bush," said Smith.
Attorney General Tom Miller, who saw Feingold speak, said he thought his message might work with some very liberal Democrats, though Miller said he did not count himself in that group.
Miller said many Democratic activists are willing to listen to Feingold's message even though he's lesser known than other potential candidates, Miller said.
"One of the great values of the caucuses is they are open," said Miller.