Tommy Thompson
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson may be readying for a run against Sen. Russ Feingold. DICK RINIKER - La Crosse Tribune

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson may be getting more serious about challenging U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. But that doesn't seem to bother Feingold.

Indeed, Feingold says, he's "excited" about running "a great race" against the former Bush administration Cabinet member.

Talk of a Thompson run ramped up Sunday when former Wisconsin Commerce Secretary Bill McCoshen appeared on the television program "Upfront with Mike Gousha" to say his old boss and close friend is leaning more and more toward mounting the challenge to Feingold.

"I've been around Tommy now for almost 20 years," said McCoshen, who recalled three of Thompson's four successful gubernatorial runs. "I've been involved in the ‘90 campaign, the '94 campaign, the '98 campaign, and some of his flirtations with races during the 2000s. This is the most serious I've seen him ..."

McCoshen said he expected to see "some additional evidence here very shortly that this thing is ramping itself up."

Specifically, McCoshen said: "I wouldn't be surprised if we see an exploratory committee here in the next couple of weeks."

"Tommy obviously will have the opportunity to say 'no.' He's got a couple more hurdles he's got to get over. But he's working his way through it," added McCoshen, who pegged May 20 -- the date of the state Republican convention -- as the "hard stop" when the former governor would decide to run or not.

While McCoshen's comments became public only Sunday morning, Feingold was ready with his response -- and genuinely seeming to relish the prospect of a high-stakes race.

A recent news report quoted a Thompson aide as saying of a possible Senate race: "This isn't something he thought up. This is mostly people coming to him, lots of people in Washington, saying he should do it."

Feingold quoted from the article Sunday and then told a cheering crowd of supporters in Madison: "That's interesting. But I'm more interested in what a whole lot of people in Wisconsin have to say about this."

Speaking at a previously organized fundraising event at Madison's High Noon Saloon, Feingold delighted in contrasting his record as a critic of special-interest lobbying and campaign spending with Thompson's recent work as a high-profile lobbyist in Washington.

Feingold said of Thompson: "Instead of taking on the special interests, he's been taking them on as clients."

The senator recalled that Thompson quit in the middle of his last term as governor, leaving Wisconsin with serious budget troubles before heading to Washington. "Then," said Feingold, "he was part of the Bush administration that made what he left Wisconsin with look like nothing."

The senator then proceeded to detail his differences with George W. Bush and Thompson on deficits, wars, unfunded mandates and health care reform.

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For all his feisty talk, Feingold acknowledges that a Thompson challenge would make the 2010 Senate race a far more intense affair than a contest with the announced Republican contenders: Terrence Wall and Dave Westlake.

McCoshen effectively dismissed Wall and Westlake as serious contenders, describing Thompson as "the only one frankly that could win on the Republican side."

The former Thompson campaign manager described a potential Feingold/Thompson contest as the "heavyweight championship battle in Wisconsin's political history."

Feingold's not going quite that far.

"It would be a great race," he said Sunday, as a wide grin swept across his face.

Then Feingold recalled that Thompson lost two previous runs for federal office -- a congressional race in the late 1970s and a 2008 attempt to gain the Republican presidential nod -- and told his backers: "On November 2, it will not be about a whole lot of people in Washington."

Rather, he suggested with a populist flourish, it will be about "the people from Wisconsin."