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Feingold opponent boasts, 'I've never been to Washington'

By Jim Acosta and Bonney Kapp, CNN
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Is Feingold finished?
  • Ron Johnson is favored to take down three-term Democrat Russ Feingold in Wisconsin
  • Feingold brushes off polls, says he's ahead in race for Senate seat
  • Johnson owes much of his quick political success to the Tea Party
  • Feingold surprises fellow liberals by making his own appeal for Tea Party votes

Milwaukee, Wisconsin (CNN) -- It doesn't get more outside the Beltway than Wisconsin Republican Senate candidate Ron Johnson.

"I'd never been to Washington D.C.... until this election. I've gone three times just to familiarize myself and meet with some groups. But that's it," Johnson said.

A millionaire businessman running in his first election, Johnson is favored to take down three-term Democrat Russ Feingold. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released this week shows Johnson with an eight point lead.

Don't tell that to Feingold. At a fundraiser headlined by first lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday, Feingold boasted, "As of this moment I am no longer behind." A Feingold campaign spokesman told CNN its own internal polling shows the race is much tighter.

In an interview with CNN, Feingold brushed off the latest polls. "See Washington always has to catch up with the reality on the ground in Wisconsin," Feingold said.

Johnson owes much of his quick political success to the Tea Party. He picked up the support of the conservative movement earlier this year with fiery speeches at Tea Party rallies. "America needs to be pulled back from the brink of socialism and state control," Johnson told a Tea Party crowd in Madison, Wisconsin, last May.

An unabashed conservative who runs a medical packaging company in Oshkosh, Johnson's outrage over health care reform led him to run for the Senate. "I view that as the single greatest assault on our freedom in our lifetime," Johnson said.

Johnson's positions are straight out of the Tea Party movement: repeal health care reform, cut taxes, shrink government and oppose climate change legislation. "It's unsettled science," Johnson says of humanity's effect on global warming.

Feingold has surprised many of his fellow Wisconsin liberals by making his own appeal for Tea Party votes.

"He's for the Patriot Act. I'm the only guy who voted against the Patriot Act. He's for these trade deals that shipped Wisconsin jobs overseas. I'm against them," Feingold said. "I agree with (Tea Party voters) on many key issues."

But Feingold voted in favor of health care reform. He's one of the few Democrats running an ad touting his vote. "That's something (Tea Party voters) don't like," Feingold said. "But you know why? Because they weren't told the truth about what's in it."

An architect of campaign finance reform, Feingold is being hammered by outside special interest groups running TV ads and billboards opposing his campaign. Johnson is also spending millions of his own fortune on his bid.

"I gotta tell you the history of my races. Every time some super rich guy goes, 'hey Feingold looks like easy pickins,' but they haven't gotten me yet. And they're not gonna get me this time," Feingold said.

It's not clear whether the bombardment of campaign messaging is resonating with Wisconsin voters who worry about the economy.

James Farrell, a co-owner of a brick masonry company and a Johnson supporter, says his business has suffered in the recession.

"It's hard to be in business anymore, and something's gotta change or a lot of people won't be in business," Farrell said.

Johnson says his experience in running a manufacturing business is exactly what Washington needs.

"I'm just a guy from Oshkosh," Johnson said.

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