WASHINGTON – By issuing an early call for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, Sen. Russ Feingold (search) could emerge as the Democrats' anti-war candidate of 2008, in the tradition of Eugene McCarthy and Howard Dean.
Although Democrats have been critical of President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, they have been reluctant to call for a timetable to leave, fearing it could reinforce stereotypes that their party is weak on national security.
Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who is comfortable on the outskirts of his party, counters that setting an end date in Iraq — preferably by the end of 2006 — would free U.S. leaders to focus on terror threats worldwide.
Right now, that sets him apart from other likely Democratic presidential candidates.
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search), for example, has called for more troops if they are needed to complete the mission. Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search) said that a timetable would be used against U.S. troops.
In a speech in Los Angeles last month, Feingold rejected what he called Bush's "false choice" between staying the course in Iraq or cutting bait.
"The Bush administration has been very successful in one thing: in intimidating people into not uttering the words timetable or timeframe," Feingold said, adding that any mention of the words is taboo in Congress.
As the first senator to call for a withdrawal timetable, Feingold finds himself in familiar terrain. In 2001, he was the only senator to vote against the USA Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11 law that expanded the government's surveillance and prosecutorial powers.
Feingold was out of the country last week and unavailable for an interview. He has demurred when asked whether he would run for president, but his travels, including a scheduled visit to New Hampshire this month, have helped stoke talk of a candidacy.
Now his call for a troop withdrawal timetable has helped define what that campaign could look like.
"He's putting a marker down that an awful lot of his colleagues have been unwilling to do," said Norm Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
Bill Dixon, a Madison, Wis., lawyer who ran Gary Hart's national 1988 presidential campaign, said, "I think Russ has catapulted himself above other Democrats nationally."
While Americans are growing restless with the conduct of the war, few seem receptive to Feingold's approach. An AP-Ipsos Poll last month found that 58 percent disapprove of the Bush administration's conduct of the war and consider it a mistake, but 60 percent want U.S. troops to stick it out until Iraq is stable.
But Feingold, who stresses he is proposing a target date, not a deadline, might also benefit from rising anger about the war. At a recent town hall meeting in Star Prairie, Wis., one man told Feingold he was "livid with anger" over the war.
"And I can no longer look at the president," he said to applause. "If I hear him speak, I hit the mute button."
Political analysts say if Feingold can tap that anger, he could emerge as the 2008 version of Dean, the former Vermont governor who vaulted to the lead in Democratic presidential polls before flaming out last year.
"It seems to me that the public, and in particular many Democratic Party activists, are way ahead of the politicians on this question," said Steve McMahon, a longtime Dean adviser. "Feingold's going where few politicians right now dare to go."
There are even comparisons to Eugene McCarthy, the former Minnesota senator whose 1968 anti-war challenge helped lead President Johnson not to seek re-election.
"McCarthy emerged in the person of Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin," wrote former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan in an Aug. 24 column.
Curtis Gans, who organized the "Dump Johnson Movement" in 1967 and became staff director of McCarthy's 1968 campaign, rejected that comparison.
"McCarthy ran at a time when he was virtually alone against a sitting president," said Gans, now director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington. "Feingold is running now for an open presidential seat."
Gans predicted that by 2007, all the Democratic candidates will have adopted Feingold's position.
"If he stakes his future on the war issue, that's not where someone will win," Gans said. "I don't think there will be that division in the Democratic Party."
Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who served as an adviser to Feingold's 1992 and 1998 Senate campaigns, said Feingold's stance will help him offer a contrast to Clinton, the presumed front-runner.
"As she moves to the center, that opens up some space on the edges," Mayer said.