U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, facing what's expected to be a stiff re-election challenge from former Sen. Russ Feingold, is striving to portray Feingold as an entitled career politician.

Johnson, a first-term Republican from Oshkosh, spoke to reporters in a conference call Friday. He touted his service in the Senate but also repeatedly took aim at Feingold, a Middleton Democrat who represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate for 18 years before Johnson ousted him in 2010.

“Sen. Feingold is a professional politician," Johnson said. "He really thinks, I believe, that the seat belongs to him.”

Johnson also questioned the "maverick" label that some have applied to Feingold -- the lone U.S. senator to vote against the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001 and one of 23 to oppose the 2002 resolution authorizing use of military force in Iraq.

But Johnson said Feingold didn't break ranks enough. Feingold should've parted ways with Democrats to oppose President Barack Obama's health care law and to support a balanced budget amendment, Johnson said.

Johnson's comments came hours before Feingold was set to address Wisconsin Democrats at their state convention Friday in Milwaukee.

The Feingold campaign responded to Johnson's remarks by calling them "desperate political attacks."

"There's a big contrast between Ron Johnson's political attacks and the call for a positive job-creating agenda Russ is going to make in his speech to the DPW Convention," Feingold's campaign manager, Tom Russell, said in an email statement.

Feingold announced last month that he'll seek a rematch with Johnson in what's expected to be one of the nation's most competitive U.S. Senate contests.

While Republicans have fared well in recent elections in Wisconsin, they often struggle in statewide races in presidential election years, when more voters typically show up. A Republican hasn't won a U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin in a presidential year since Sen. Bob Kasten in 1980.

Early polls have shown the challenger Feingold in an unusually strong position against a sitting incumbent in Johnson. An April poll from Marquette University showed Feingold with a 54-percent to 38-percent lead among registered voters. Thirty-nine percent of poll respondents said they didn't know or hadn't heard enough about Johnson to say if they viewed him favorably.

Johnson downplayed the significance of history and polling at this stage of the race.

“These early polls are completely meaningless," Johnson said. "This is going to be a really close race.”

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.