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MADISON (Reuters) - Thousands of people gathered at the Wisconsin capitol on Saturday to demand a recall of Republican Governor Scott Walker, whose controversial and successful drive to limit public unions last winter sparked the biggest protests in the state since the Vietnam War.
Former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat, signed a recall petition during a morning meeting with about 300 recall volunteers and pledged to help the effort through his political action committee.
With the crowd chanting "Run, Russ, Run," Feingold repeated that he would not run against Walker in any recall election.
"There will be a new governor in a few months. It won't be me, but it will be somebody good," Feingold said. "It's not about me. It's not about any particular candidate. It's about restoring civility and some kind of sense of unity to the state."
The Wisconsin Department of Administration estimated that between 25,000 and 30,000 people gathered at an afternoon rally at the Capitol building to boost the state-wide petition drive for a Walker recall election that began on November 15.
United Wisconsin, part of the coalition leading the recall effort, said more than 105,000 signatures had been gathered through the first four days of the effort. Organizers need 540,208 valid signatures by January 15 to trigger a recall vote.
Walker, who swept into office in the Republican rebound during the November 2010 mid-term national elections, made Wisconsin ground zero for the party's push for conservative reforms.
He cited budget reasons for an unyielding push for curbs in collective bargaining for public workers like teachers. The proposal set off mass protests and prompted 14 Democratic Senators to leave for Illinois to avoid a quorum. But the legislation passed along party lines in March.
The Walker recall push follows the successful removal of two Republican state senators in recalls this summer by energized Democrats.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said on Saturday: "The only campaign Governor Walker is focused on is the one to help the private sector create 250,000 new jobs."
Many at Saturday's rally carried signs and shouted chants like "solidarity" and "union power" as they circled the Capitol building in chilly autumn weather.
Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt said Walker "doesn't get it. He keeps telling us that everything is okay, that everything is working. But we know better."
Feingold earlier fired up activists at the downtown Madison Majestic Theater, saying Walker never campaigned on eliminating collective bargaining rights and must be held accountable for his "unusual, exceptional attack on the working people of this state."
Feingold said that since the collective bargaining law cannot be put to a referendum and Walker refuses to repeal the measure, a recall election was the only option left.
"Our only choice is to remove this governor and lieutenant governor, and we need to do that now," he added.
State Republican executive director Stephan Thompson said the cost to taxpayers for the recall "is without precedent."
"While Governor Walker and the state legislature instituted bold reforms to cut wasteful spending, the Democrats and their liberal special interests simply want to increase it in their selfish pursuit to regain political power," he said.
In addition to the governor and lieutenant governor's offices, the political balance of the state Senate is at stake with 11 Republicans and 6 Democrats not already up for re-election eligible for recall efforts under state rules.
Lawmakers who have been in office one year and who have not already faced such a vote are eligible for recall in Wisconsin. Republicans now hold a majority of 17-16 in the state Senate.
Reporting by Jeff Mayers, Adam Wollner and Hannah Shepard; Editing by Peter Bohan and Cynthia Johnston