In a year of tossup races that could determine control of the Senate, the Republican effort to unseat Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) ranks as a very long shot.

Polls show Feingold leading his GOP rival, soldier-turned-businessman Tim Michels, by more than 20 percent in a couple of recent surveys. And the National Republican Senatorial Committee canceled $1.2 million in television advertising that it had reserved for Michels's campaign.

But Republicans, remembering Feingold's close races in 1992 and 1998 and sensing vulnerability in some of his recent votes, including opposition to the USA Patriot Act, the war in Iraq and some tax cuts, insist that lightning might strike, especially if President Bush turns out a strong GOP vote in the state.

Even Feingold's signature accomplishment -- passage of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that he co-sponsored with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- has become fodder for Michels's campaign. In speeches and ads, Michels has ridiculed the law's impact on campaign spending and said he would concentrate on issues more relevant to Wisconsin, such as jobs, health care and anti-terrorism initiatives.

"This is one of the clearest and sharpest contrasts in the country," NRSC spokesman Dan Allen said. "Feingold is vulnerable on defense, taxes . . . and if campaign finance was such a big accomplishment, why is there so much spending" in current campaigns? he asked.

Democrats respond that Feingold's efforts on behalf of campaign finance, coupled with his votes on war and civil liberties, underscore a political independence that historically appeals to Wisconsin voters. It was a "tight fit" at first, but "people have grown to like and respect him," said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Six years ago, Feingold won just over 50 percent of the vote after a public spat with other Democrats over his refusal to accept outside money that his bill sought to outlaw. He still tells outsiders to spend their money elsewhere but has turned into a bit of a money machine in raising regulated donations permitted under the law: about $10 million and rising, far more than Michels has taken in.

Nader Rebuffed in Ohio

Ohio's Supreme Court rejected Ralph Nader's effort to get his name on the state ballot yesterday, in a blow to the independent presidential candidate but a possible boon to the hopes of Democrat John F. Kerry.

Nader's campaign said it will appeal the 6 to 1 decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Nader's spokesman, Kevin Zeese, acknowledged that there might not be enough time before Election Day for Nader to get a spot.

The ruling was the second setback in five days for Nader in the critical swing state. On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit turned down Nader's request to delay a federal judge's decision that removed him from the Ohio ballot.

Nader was ordered off the ballot last month by Ohio's secretary of state, who ruled that many of the signatures on Nader's petitions for ballot access were invalid because the individuals were not registered to vote. Nader then sued, saying the state failed to count signatures of people whose voter-registration applications were backlogged. In its ruling yesterday, the court said Nader's campaign waited too long before raising that claim, and that granting Nader's request now "would endanger Ohio's election preparations."

Nader has been drawing support between 1 percent and 2 percent of voters in Ohio polls. While Nader voters are unpredictable, Doug Schoen, a Democratic strategist unaffiliated with Kerry's campaign, said the Democrat should be the beneficiary. "Given how close the race in Ohio is, this could potentially make all the difference in the world," he said.

Election Costs Rise 30%

The 2004 presidential and congressional elections will cost a record $3.9 billion, according to projections based on a study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The estimate represents a 30 percent increase from the $3 billion spent on federal elections four years ago. The presidential race alone will cost an unprecedented $1.2 billion or more, according to the center's estimates.