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MADISON — It was a surprisingly upbeat Russ Feingold who late Tuesday conceded the loss of the U.S. Senate seat he held for 18 years to Republican Ron Johnson.

Quoting folk singer Bob Dylan, Feingold declared his heart is “not weary — it’s light and free.”

What he said next during his short concession speech left the crowd wondering whether they soon could see the Democratic senator back on the campaign trail.

“I hope and I intend to continue to work with all of you in the future as much as possible,” Feingold told about 300 supporters at the Madison Marriott West. “So it’s on to the next fight. It’s on to the next battle. It’s on to 2012. And it is on to our next adventure — forward!”

The speech fueled speculation Feingold might run for president against Barack Obama or seek the seat of fellow Democrat Sen. Herb Kohl in 2012. Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Mike Tate pooh-poohed both scenarios.

“He’s not going to run for president. He’s not going to challenge Herb Kohl. I believe Herb Kohl is going to run for re-election,” Tate said, adding, “the Democratic Party is very excited about that.”

Feingold spokesman John Kraus was asked earlier in the evening what the 57-year-old senator would do if he lost.

“He will return to Washington to work against the corporate special interests, just as he has always done,” Kraus said.

University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin called the speech “an interesting choice of words, and likely not just off the cuff.”

But, he said, “there are many public-interest organizations I can imagine him (Feingold) working for.”

Kraus said Wednesday the senator has “no current plans to run for anything.

“As he said last night, the fight for our progressive values continues and it is a fight our supporters should stay engaged in moving forward.”

UW-Milwaukee political science professor Mordecai Lee also read the speech more broadly, saying it signaled Feingold’s interest in staying active in public life and focusing Democrats on the next election.

As for Johnson, his campaign said he planned to prepare to take public office out of the public eye.

The media-shy plastics company owner Wednesday in Oshkosh gave what might have been his last press conference before becoming Wisconsin’s newest senator. Johnson, 55, reiterated plans to fight the new health care law and to block further stimulus funding.

Johnson spokeswoman Sara Sendek said late Tuesday that Johnson would spend the next several weeks “assembling a team” and would be “unavailable for media interviews.”

State Journal reporters George Hesselberg and Mary Spicuzza and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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