It was supposed to be an easy re-election for Sen. Russ Feingold. And come November, it still may be. But for now, the Wisconsin Democrat is facing one of his toughest campaign challenges in a long and successful political career.
Polls show Mr. Feingold with a razor-thin lead over an unknown Oshkosh businessman with no political experience.
Although Republican Ron Johnson hasn't even cleared his party's primary, set for September, many in the Badger State say he poses a real threat to Mr. Feingold's quest for a fourth six-year term in the Senate.
"Almost nobody knows anything about Johnson but yet he's still only two to four points behind Feingold, and I think what that shows is just how energized Republicans are," said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin at Madison political science professor and co-founder of Pollster.com.
Results of a survey released last week by Public Policy Polling shows Mr. Feingold with 45 percent of the potential vote, compared with Mr. Johnson's 43 percent.
Wisconsin voters have mixed feelings about the senator. Polls show 42 percent disapprove of his job performance - the same percentage who say they support him.
The survey also shows that 62 percent of Wisconsinites are unsure of their opinion of Mr. Johnson.
"Johnson should win the primary and has a good chance of winning the general," said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. "But he needs to focus on spreading his name and message. Feingold can't depend on his popularity alone. He has to win over undecided voters - that is who is going to determine this election."
A Rasmussen Reports survey taken about a week earlier showed Mr. Feingold with 46 percent of the vote - only one percentage point more than Mr. Johnson.
The two men also were tied in a Rasmussen poll in late May.
Businessman Dave Westlake is running against Mr. Johnson for the Republican primary Sept. 14. But with little money and weak polling numbers, he isn't expected to pose a serious challenge.
Because Wisconsin voters are familiar with Mr. Feingold, who has served in the Senate since 1993, don't expect his job performance numbers to improve significantly, political analysts say.
"That's not likely to go up a lot because people just aren't likely to learn a lot more about Feingold," said Thomas M. Holbrook, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "I think that's a little bit of a concern for him."
Mr. Johnson, 55, who owns a plastics company, has never before run for public office but jumped onto the political stage after Congress passed the Democrats' health care reform package this year.
"Ron, like so many people who are just getting involved [in politics] for the first time, saw what was going on in Washington and didn't want to sit on the sidelines any longer," said Johnson spokeswoman Kristin Ruesch. "The final straw for Ron was the passage of the health care bill; he viewed that as the largest assault on our freedom in his lifetime."
With no political baggage, Mr. Johnson has been able to run as a true Washington outsider. He supports much of the mainstream Republican agenda, such as controlling the size of government and keeping taxes low.
His meteoric rise in the polls is even more surprising considering he entered the race only after former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson - who had flirted with campaigning for Mr. Feingold's post - announced this spring that he wouldn't run.
Mr. Johnson used new media tools such as podcasts to quickly spread his message statewide. In May, less than a month after he entered the race, the Wisconsin Republican Party endorsed his candidacy.
Yet a lack of political experience has resulted in a few campaign stumbles, political analysts say. He has expressed support for the USA Patriot Act, a law enacted during the George W. Bush administration that many in the conservative "tea party" movement - voters he is trying to court - view as an infringement of personal rights.
Although Mr. Johnson has said he supports the Second Amendment, some tea party activists aren't convinced he would be a strong advocate of the right to bear arms, Mr. Franklin said.
"From a cynical point of view, you win elections by learning how to finesse those sort of things," he said.
Questions also remain about Mr. Johnson's finances. Because he entered the race so late, he has yet to file a campaign finance report.
Ms. Ruesch said Mr. Johnson plans to "make an investment in his race," although she wouldn't discuss specifically his financial situation.
A Feingold loss wouldn't be the first this year for a sitting senator. Republican turned Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah were shown the door by their parties' voters this spring.
But political analysts and pollsters also say it's way too early to declare Mr. Feingold a lame duck.
Despite Republican claims that Mr. Feingold is among the Senate's most liberal members, he voted against the Wall Street bailout in 2008 and has suggested he won't support the Obama administration's financial reform legislation.
The National Journal's congressional score card ranks Mr. Feingold among the most moderate Democrats in the Senate.
"He can counter the claim that he is a standard-issue liberal Democrat who wants to explode the size of the federal government," Mr. Franklin said.
Mr. Feingold has fended off other significant challenges to his seat.
"He's a very liberal U.S. senator and Wisconsin is a very middle-of-the-road state, so he's always got to sort of fight a little harder [in races] than somebody like [Democratic Sen.] Herb Kohl, who is a little bit more middle of the road," Mr. Holbrook said.
"He's not somebody with a lot of high negatives around the state. Many people respect him."
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Sean Lengell covers Congress and national politics and can be reached at email@example.com.
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