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OSHKOSH, WIS. - A proposed $810 million high-speed rail line funded by federal stimulus money that would link Wisconsin's two largest cities has become an emblem of the battle for control of the U.S. Senate.
Republicans say linking Milwaukee and Madison would waste taxpayer money, while Democrats call it an economic development project akin to the Interstate highway system.
The rail proposal, part of $8 billion in economic stimulus grants awarded earlier this year to 13 rail corridors, is among the initiatives pushed by President Obama that Sen. Russell Feingold, a three-term Democrat with a record of an independent streak, is defending this election season.
"This is, in fact, building a legitimate, environmentally sound infrastructure for the future of our state," Feingold, 57, told a group of business leaders in Madison.
Feingold is planning to face Ron Johnson, a plastics executive seeking public office for the first time, in the November election. Johnson, 55, says the rail line is an example of excessive Washington spending.
"Wisconsin taxpayers will be on the hook for about $10 million per year for a costly train that few will ride," he said, calling instead for shoring up existing infrastructure.
Feingold's fight to hold his seat is a measure of the difficulty Democrats face in November. He was considered a safe incumbent earlier this year.
"Wisconsin is an evenly divided state, and neither Republicans nor Democrats have a clear advantage," said Thomas Holbrook, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. "Although Feingold has a maverick image, he is a pretty liberal Democrat."
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington moved its ranking of the Wisconsin race from leaning Democratic to toss-up, one of 13 Senate contests nationally with that designation. A Rasmussen Reports survey Aug. 24 showed a statistical tie between Feingold and Johnson, the leading Republican candidate in Wisconsin's Sept. 14 primary.
While Feingold is selling the Democrats' actions over the past 19 months, he's also shown his maverick tendencies.
He was the lone Democrat to oppose a bill aimed at strengthening regulation of Wall Street, one of Obama's top legislative initiatives, saying it wasn't tough enough. His desire for a government-run insurance program, called the public option, complicated White House efforts to pass health-care overhaul legislation.
Feingold also voted against confirming Ben Bernanke for a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve and opposed Timothy Geithner's confirmation as Treasury secretary.
"He has never been part of the Democratic establishment," said Jeff Mayers, president of the Internet site WisPolitics.com.
Johnson is following Republican attack lines used nationally, including criticizing Feingold's support of the health-care overhaul, which he wants repealed, and last year's stimulus bill. "There is such a high level of uncertainty in this economy right now that it has just frozen everyone," he said.
Feingold says Johnson is "on the side of the very elite, well-to-do people, and he wants bigger tax cuts for himself." Feingold also presents Johnson as outside the mainstream because he has ties to the Tea Party, a coalition of voters seeking limits on government spending, taxes and debt.
Johnson, a native of neighboring Minnesota, said his relationship with the Tea Party is minimal, although he welcomes its support.
"The people I see at those rallies are good, honest, hard-working, taxpaying, patriotic Americans that absolutely share my concern for the direction of this country," he said.