CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Sen. Russ Feingold just finished a rousing speech at the University of North Carolina about the need to protect civil liberties in the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere, but the first question wasn't about public policy.
"I was wondering what your current thoughts are on running for the 2004 presidential election," an audience member asked to applause.
The four-stop college tour by Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, is read by many analysts as a sort of spring training for the presidential election.
Feingold, 48, answered as he has repeatedly: that he was more likely to run for re-election to the Senate, but added: "I do want to have the Democratic ticket be a progressive ticket."
At another event, Feingold told reporters there was a one-in-a-hundred chance he would run for president. But politicians and athletes are notoriously off when handicapping their future. Michael Jordan, who burst onto the scene on this campus two decades ago, said last year he was "99.9 percent" certain he wouldn't return to the NBA. He now plays for the Washington Wizards.
Feingold did say that at the very least, he wants to play an active role in helping chose the Democratic nominee -- and to wrest control of the party back from the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
Feingold, one of the Senate's most liberal members, could appeal to voters who like his reform-minded, independent streak. Best known as a partner with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on campaign finance reform, Feingold also was the only senator last year to vote against the anti-terrorism bill, citing civil liberties concerns.
He also tried to force a vote on an automatic cost-of-living pay raise for members of Congress and declined his own raise. He refused to allow the Democratic Party to run ads against his opponent in the 1998 Senate campaign, nearly costing Feingold the election.
But Feingold's lone arrows also hit friends on the left, too. He angered them last year when he voted to confirm John Ashcroft for attorney general, arguing that presidents should be able to choose their own cabinet members, regardless of ideology.
About 1,000 people came out in North Carolina to hear Feingold discuss his views on terrorism, the death penalty, racial profiling and campaign finance reform.
Although his opposition to the death penalty won the most applause, Feingold's campaign finance reform crusade hit a chord with many students. In the lobby outside, they gathered signatures to put a referendum on the student ballot that would urge the state legislature to pass campaign finance reform.
"I would be thrilled to see him run for president," said Alice Teich, a 20-year-old junior from Asheville, N.C., who was working on the referendum effort. "He sold me in a big way."
Feingold would become the first Jewish president if he goes all the way in 2004. He wouldn't be the first Jewish trailblazer in the family -- sister Dena Feingold became the first female rabbi in Wisconsin two decades ago.
Feingold, who has about $750,000 in his campaign account, said in an interview he likely will make a decision in March 2003, when he turns 50. He said he's received some encouragement from supporters in Wisconsin and around the country.
If he does run, Feingold said the first person he'd seek out for advice would be McCain, who ran a reformist campaign for the Republican nomination in 2000.
"I would do it as I've always done it, which is to get out there and do a low-budget, listening-to- people sort of campaign," said Feingold, who holds annual town meetings in all 72 Wisconsin counties. "To some extent, John McCain did that in his presidential campaign with town meetings."
Feingold grew up in one of the state's more conservative counties, Rock County. In a 1960 mock presidential election, he was the only student in his second-grade class to vote for John F. Kennedy.
"I went home the night before the election, and had 24 Kennedy buttons on," Feingold recalled. "Talk about a geeky kid. I came home and my mother said I was just despondent. I said if John Kennedy doesn't win tomorrow, I can't go back to school."
Feingold came from a political family. His father, Leon Feingold, helped organize "Joe Must Go" efforts aimed at dumping Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the red-baiting Wisconsin Republican.
The biggest fight Feingold had with his father was over which candidate to support in the 1968 Democratic presidential primary. Leon Feingold supported Hubert Humphrey; the 9th-grade Russ liked Robert F. Kennedy.
"My father sent me upstairs without my dinner for saying something bad about Hubert Humphrey," Feingold recalled, quickly deadpanning -- "They fed me later on."
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said Feingold could find a niche in the Democratic primary by courting voters who supported the reform-minded Bill Bradley in the 2000 election.
"I think that Feingold has an interesting, outside appeal," Rothenberg said. "He sees himself as the conscience of his party."
Should Feingold decide to run, he'll have to overcome resentment from liberal groups about his vote to confirm Ashcroft.
Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way, which fiercely fought the nomination, suggested that Feingold had made up for the vote.
"Since the confirmation, Senator Feingold has been courageous in his criticisms of the attacks on civil liberties," Neas said. "He has done a terrific job."
But Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, said Feingold still had to redeem himself in her eyes. Before the Ashcroft vote, she noted, Feingold had a 100 percent voting record in support of abortion rights.
Feingold said most people have gotten over the Ashcroft vote, although he still makes no apologies for it. He concedes it could hurt him if he runs for president.
"I'm sure that some people will stay mad at me about this," he said. "I just do what I think is the right thing to do. If I pay a price for it later on, so be it. I made a commitment to vote my conscience."