Thompson encouraged by polls, not ruling out Feingold challenge

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R-Wis.) is encouraged by polls showing him leading Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in a hypothetical matchup.

He hasn’t announced a 2010 Senate run but admits he’s spoken to the head of National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and several other senators about the possibility.

“It’s a good year for me,” Thompson told The Hill. “The polls are good in Wisconsin and I haven’t even indicated” an intention to run.

A Rasmussen Reports poll released this week showed Thompson with a 48-43 lead over Feingold. The two Republicans currently in the race, developer Terrence Wall and businessman Dave Westlake, both trailed Feingold in the survey of 500 likely voters. In all three matchups, Feingold polled under 50 percent.

Feingold’s campaign took issue with the hypothetical nature of the poll. “In order for this latest poll to be real, you have to believe in four things that aren’t. You would have to believe this poll is widely seen as independent or credible. You would have to think Tommy Thompson has entered the Republican Party primary and won it, and the election would have to be today, not nine months from now. None of these are true," said Trevor Miller, a spokesman for Feingold's campaign.

Thompson’s candidacy would be a huge boost for the Republican Party. He said he’s spoken to NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) about running.

“We’ve discussed it,” Thompson said, adding the committee hasn’t been too aggressive trying to get their man. “They’ve been very respectful of me. … There’s been different senators at different times calling, encouraging me to consider it and possibly running. It’s a personal thing for me and my family.”

One concern Thompson has is whether to mothball his career in the private sector. The former Bush Cabinet secretary serves as president of a healthcare company and is associated with several corporate boards. He's also a partner at the Washington law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

“I’m happy where I am and we’ll see what happens,” he said.

Thompson would have an edge on what could be a central issue in the campaign — healthcare. While he was Health and Human Services secretary in President George W. Bush’s first term, Thompson pushed for the classification of obesity as a disease. Now, he’s prepared to make obesity an issue in 2010.

“If you want to address [healthcare] costs, 75 percent of the cost and the underlying cause is obesity,” Thompson said. “I’m passionate about it.”

Thompson is also not an ardent partisan, which could serve him well in Wisconsin, where President Barack Obama bested Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 14 points. Plus, Thompson is a popular former governor of the state.

Republicans have seen their 2010 prospects rise as the year moves forward. While retaking a majority in the Senate would be an uphill climb, the party has been encouraged by Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) win and the retirement of Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.).

In an interview, Thompson saluted the White House’s effort to curb childhood obesity.

“I compliment the first lady about it,” Thompson said. “She’s absolutely correct and I can’t tell you how much I support the fact that we have got to start exercising more and eating less.”

Thompson has until July 13 to file papers to run. And if he doesn’t run this cycle he concedes it would be a signal he plans to stay out of public life.

“I would say that you could assume that,” he said.

Miller said Feingold isn't waiting on Thompson's decision to launch a robust grassroots effort. "We have seven field offices with plans to add four more in a month. ... We have thousands of endorsements, and a volunteer army that will continue organizing Wisconsinites, step by step, in all 72 counties of the state," he said. "No other candidate, or potential candidate, can say that.”