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UPDATE: Ben Nelson may be leaving the U.S. Senate, but that doesn't mean he is retiring.
The 70-year-old Democrat said Wednesday he doesn't know what the future holds, but he knows he'll continue to work.
"I have no plans to retire. No plans to retire. Zero," said Nelson, who appeared relaxed and happy a day after informing Democratic leaders in the Senate that he did not plan to seek a third term.
Nelson's decision left the political world scrambling, as Nebraska Democrats began the search for a candidate with less than a year left before the election.
Nelson disputed the idea that there was too little time left for someone to mount a campaign. He noted that even some Republicans are considering whether to jump into the race after the incumbent's retirement.
"If it's not too late for them, then why is it too late for the Democrats?" asked Nelson.
He also said the decision to retire was difficult, but that, in the end, he wanted a change. And he wanted to spend more time with family and friends after nearly two decades in public life.
"Twenty years is a long time to set aside things," said Nelson.
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It's crunch time in the U.S. Senate race in Nebraska.
Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson's decision to retire opened the door Tuesday for more candidates — Republican and Democrat — to consider mounting campaigns for a race in which they would immediately be battling the clock.
The names of possible candidates being bandied about included former Nebraska Gov. and Sen. Bob Kerrey, Rep. Lee Terry and former Lt. Gov. Kim Robak, who served with Nelson.
Of course, there isn't much time for anyone, especially political novices. The primary is in May. To get their names on the ballot, incumbents have until Feb. 15 to file; nonincumbents must file by March 1.
The filing deadlines make it difficult for any new candidate to get in, and it's especially hard on the Nebraska Democratic Party, which has no one waiting in the wings.
Republicans already have three major candidates in the field, including Attorney General Jon Bruning and State Treasurer Don Stenberg. Both have been in the race for about a year, raising money and building campaign organizations.
The challenges for a Democrat to quickly launch a campaign and run against Republicans who have a considerable head start are formidable but not insurmountable, said Barry Rubin, a Democratic political consultant who was once executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
Rubin said the Republicans who are in the race can be beaten by a “well-qualified moderate Democrat.”
“The fact that Ben's not running makes it significantly more challenging for Democrats to retain that seat, but I do think it's possible,” he said.
Nelson bowed out Tuesday, saying that he wanted to spend more time with his family and that it was “time to move on.”
The 70-year-old kept the political world guessing for months. He had been considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate because of his controversial vote for President Barack Obama's health care plan.
In the end, close advisers said, Nelson came to believe that he could win a third term but wasn't sure he wanted to spend six more years in the Senate after 20 years as an elected official: eight as Nebraska governor and 12 as a U.S. senator.
Nelson, considered a moderate Democrat who always sought the middle ground in policy debates, said he hoped his successor would follow suit.
“I encourage those who will follow in my footsteps to look for common ground and to work together in bipartisan ways to do what's best for the country, not just one political party,” said Nelson.
His moderate reputation earned accolades from Obama, who issued a statement thanking Nelson for his service.
“Over the course of his career, Ben's commitment to working with both Democrats and Republicans across a broad range of issues is a trait far too often overlooked in today's politics,” Obama said.
Nelson's decision to retire has national implications for Democrats. It will make it tougher for the party to maintain its four-seat control of the U.S. Senate.
Nelson is one of seven Democratic incumbents in the Senate to announce their retirements this year. That means that Democrats have to defend seven open seats against formidable Republican candidates.
Nelson has long been one of the state's highest-ranking Democrats. He is the only Democrat to currently hold a high statewide or federal office in Nebraska. The next highest-ranking Democrat is Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle.
Nelson's retirement will probably turn up the heat in the GOP nomination battle, especially if no credible Democratic challenger steps forward.
The Republican who claims victory in the May 15 primary has a good shot of being the next U.S. senator, said Mark Fahleson, chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party.
He believes that possibility will give some Republicans added incentive to run.
“Other individuals will take a look at it — a stronger look — than they would have if Sen. Nelson was running for re-election,” Fahleson said.
Gov. Dave Heineman could be one Republican who reconsiders.
The popular two-term governor has been urged by national GOP leaders — including Karl Rove — to run. Heineman has said his heart is not in a Senate race, but with Nelson out of the picture, he could reconsider.
Another name that keeps cropping up in Democratic circles is Kerrey. However, Kerrey appeared to throw cold water on the idea Tuesday.
Kerrey has lived in New York City for the past decade with his wife and young son. He would have to re-establish his Nebraska residency before running.
Kerrey, traveling in India with his family, said in an email that he wasn't keen on returning to the campaign trail, but he did not absolutely rule out the possibility.
“I love the idea of coming home to Nebraska, but coming home for a Senate campaign thrills me less,” wrote Kerrey.
By all accounts, Nelson's decision to retire after nearly 20 years in public office has been a tough one.
Democratic leaders aggressively tried to persuade him to seek a third term, pouring more than $1.3 million into television advertisements last summer to try to improve Nelson's political standing.
His close associates say the Democrat was not afraid of losing, although the idea that it would be a grueling election had to factor into his decision.
The outcry over Nelson's vote to back Obama's health care plan seriously damaged his political standing on the homefront.
Nelson quickly saw his approval ratings plummet. At times, only about 40 percent of Nebraskans approved of his job performance in Washington.
That number is astonishing given his history. Nelson routinely enjoyed a high approval rating among Nebraskans. When he ended two terms as governor in 1999, about 80 percent of Nebraskans said they approved of his job performance.
He also enjoyed high approval as a senator. In 2006, Nelson was named one of the Senate's most popular members after national pollster SurveyUSA reported that 73 percent of Nebraskans approved of his performance.
As a politician, Nelson was the consummate deal-making moderate. He was a Democrat who opposed abortion rights and who courted the business community. He favored bipartisan compromise over ideological purity.
His Senate colleagues considered his most important vote the one he cast for majority leader at the start of every Congress. In exchange for supporting Democrats' control of the chamber, Nelson was afforded great deference on other votes.
Year after year, Nelson was among the senators most likely to depart from the party line, which enraged left-wing activists. He wasn't shy about exploiting the leverage that comes with being the man in the middle.
Although he supported some of the Democrats' biggest legislative priorities, he often did so only after wringing concessions. He supported the health care overhaul, but only after Democrats dropped the public option.
Nelson rallied crucial, bipartisan support for Obama's financial stimulus package, but only after trimming it by about $100 billion.
He was an early supporter of Obama but wasn't afraid to vote against the president's agenda. He split on Obama's appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court — supporting Sonia Sotomayor, opposing Elena Kagan.
His notable successes included his ability to bring home money and projects into Nebraska. Most recently, he was instrumental in securing funding for a new headquarters for the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base and for building a new VA Medical Center in Omaha.
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