When Bob Kerrey last presented himself to Nebraska voters 18 years ago, he won re-election to the U.S. Senate with 55 percent of the vote — a neat trick for a Democrat in a Republican-dominated state.
With his announcement Wednesday that he's running for his old seat, he'll have to see if he still can work the ol' Kerrey magic. But things have changed.
Going into the 1994 election, Republican registrations in Nebraska outnumbered Democrats by 90,000. This year the difference is more than 180,000.
In fact, 48 percent of would-be Nebraska voters are registered as Republicans, 33 percent as Democrats and 19 percent independent or nonpartisan.
Even for a candidate with name recognition like Kerrey's, the path to victory in this Plains state will mean he has mountains to climb.
"If any Democrat has a chance to win a statewide race in Nebraska," said Randall Adkins, chairman of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, "somebody like Bob Kerrey is probably best-positioned to do it."
Most Nebraskans, whether they like him or not, probably would agree that Kerrey is the only "somebody" who is "like Bob Kerrey."
A Medal of Honor recipient who lost part of a leg in Vietnam and eventually turned against U.S. policy on the war, Kerrey later started successful businesses and, in 1982, came out of nowhere to win election as governor. He dated a movie star and dismissed reporters' inquiries by saying, "Fluff up your pillow and dream about it."
He won election to the U.S. Senate in 1988 and sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1992. He has lived in New York City for 12 years.
It's been said that he needs to introduce himself to a new generation of Nebraska voters. But, as a candidate, he himself will be introduced to a different tone of elective politics — even more polarized and rancorous than when he last ran.
Said Adkins: "I expect this campaign to be probably the ugliest Nebraska has seen in recent years. And it's not necessarily going to be the fault of Nebraskans.
"Given how competitive the seat is going to be for Republicans trying to gain the Senate majority and for the Democrats trying to hold on to it, a lot of outside money will be spent here."
Nebraskans long have shown an independent streak and have elected Democratic governors or senators such as Frank Morrison, J.J. Exon, Ed Zorinsky, Ben Nelson and Kerrey. But the Cornhusker State has moved to the right.
Yes, President Barack Obama won a 2008 electoral vote in the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District, and the mayors of Lincoln and Omaha are Democrats. But in statewide races, Democrats start from behind.
Dems who succeed in Nebraska respect the state's conservative values, show political independence and keep partisanship in check.
Nelson has served as the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, though he received criticism in Nebraska for his vote for the president's health care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act, which critics call Obamacare. He chose not to seek re-election.
The most moderate Republican in the Senate, Olympia Snowe of Maine, announced this week that she would not seek re-election — because of increasing partisanship.
Bipartisanship is becoming a thing of the past; compromise, a lost art; reaching across the aisle, passé.
Adkins doesn't expect the widening gulf to lessen: "I do not see bipartisanship on the horizon."
Then what kind of political ship does sail on the horizon? Brinkmanship? Gamesmanship? One-upmanship? We've seen plenty of those in Congress, where approval ratings have sunk to new lows.
An old Navy guy, Kerrey since leaving the Senate has served as a university president and as a member of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.
In this race, the stakes are high for Nebraska and the nation. Returning to his home state to seek high office once again, Kerrey may find that out here in the middle of America, he is sailing into rough waters.
"Rockin' Bob," as we used to call him, is not ready for the rockin' chair. At 68, with a large registration deficit for his party, he will nevertheless try to rock the boat.
Contact the writer: