On the big issues of the day, the three major Republicans running for U.S. Senate in Nebraska are on the same page:
>>> The health care law needs to be repealed in its entirety.
>>> Tax increases are off the table.
>>> And all support a balanced budget amendment, although none has put forth a concrete plan outlining exactly where all the cuts would come from.
With few policy differences separating the three, the race among Attorney General Jon Bruning, State Treasurer Don Stenberg and State Sen. Deb Fischer hinges largely on experience, character and electability, with GOP voters weighing which of the three can defeat Democrat Bob Kerrey in the fall election.
"It's going to come down to character and their personal stories," predicted Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Barring any major surprises, one of the three will face Kerrey in a general election race expected to be fiercely fought, in part because of its national implications. Nebraska is one of several states expected to determine whether Republicans or Democrats control the U.S. Senate.
With 58 days left before the May 15 primary, the three candidates have been revving up their campaigns and honing their messages.
Bruning clearly has a competitive edge. He has the biggest war chest by far, standing at $1.7 million as of the last campaign report. He also leads in several polls, although primary polls are historically volatile because voters usually do not begin to focus on the race until the final weeks and days of the campaign.
Bruning might have an edge, but he doesn't have a lock.
"I'm not sure anyone has taken a huge advantage over anyone else," said Scott Petersen, chairman of the Douglas County Republican Party. "It's like the presidential race. You think someone's out, then they get momentum. I wouldn't rule anyone out at this point."
As the front-runner, Bruning is trying to ignore his GOP opponents and focus his firepower on Kerrey and the Democrats. He argues that he is the best of the three to tackle Kerrey, in part, because of his proven ability to raise money and garner support from traditional GOP bastions.
Bruning, who has spent years preparing for a statewide race, has racked up endorsements from key segments of the Republican base. Recently he unveiled a long list of influential GOP donors, including Mike Yanney, chairman of Burlington Capital Group, and Jim Young, chairman of Union Pacific Railroad.
"He's earned the support and built a political organization that includes 27 current and former state senators, 74 police chiefs and sheriffs, 38 county attorneys, and county chairs in all 93 Nebraska counties," said Trent Fellers, Bruning's campaign manager.
Bruning also is capitalizing on his years as attorney general and his decision to join in a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform overseen by the Obama administration, saying he has the record to run against Kerrey.
As for Stenberg, Bruning noted that the longtime Republican has run three times for the U.S. Senate and lost all three bids.
"Nebraskans have had the chance to elect Don Stenberg to the Senate, and three times they've chosen not to. It's time to try something different," Bruning said.
Stenberg countered that his experience with statewide races actually gives him the edge over Bruning, who Stenberg says has never faced a candidate as tough as Kerrey.
Stenberg said he has at least won a competitive primary race, in 2000, and came within about 15,000 votes of defeating U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson.
"Jon Bruning is a totally untested candidate," Stenberg said. "He's never won a contested statewide primary."
Stenberg readily acknowledges that Bruning may have the backing of the state's GOP establishment, but Stenberg said he has the support of the state's Tea Party base.
He also argues that he's the "genuine lifelong conservative" in the race, earning a reputation as a staunch social and fiscal conservative during his three terms as attorney general.
In that office, Stenberg waged an unsuccessful battle to defend the state's ban on partial-birth abortion and successfully defended the state's death penalty laws, pushing for the execution of three convicted murderers.
Stenberg paints Bruning as a recent convert to conservatism, someone who adopted the Republican platform to get elected when he ran for office.
When Bruning was in law school in the early 1990s, he wrote several columns for the Daily Nebraskan supporting abortion rights, same-sex marriage, Hillary Rodham Clinton and gun control.
"Jon Bruning is just a typical politician. He's talking conservative today because that's what he needs to get elected," Stenberg said.
For his part, Bruning dismisses his Democratic Party days in law school, noting that GOP icon Ronald Reagan was a Democrat before he was a Republican.
"My conservative record in public service speaks for itself. Life is a journey, and like a lot of Nebraskans, I've become more conservative as I've grown older," Bruning said.
As for Bruning's money edge, Stenberg has leveled the playing field by aggressively wooing the support of out-of-state political committees. He has landed the endorsements of three major conservative groups: Freedom Works, Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Both Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund have a history of investing big money in their endorsed candidates, including television advertisements.
"Stenberg still has money, and that means he can cause trouble. It's not a done deal," said John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Fischer, the third major candidate in the race, finds herself playing the dark-horse role. She has had trouble raising money and landing big endorsements.
She has positioned herself as the third option in hopes that Stenberg and Bruning will be bloodied and bruised by primary day and that voters will seek an alternative.
"The path to victory for her is to stay under the radar, be positive and let the other two candidates drive up each other's negatives," Adkins said.
On the stump, Fischer has stressed her experience in the Nebraska Legislature, where she has earned a reputation as a hard worker who is able to get bills passed, including a major roads bill in the last session.
She also says she is the only candidate who is not a "career politician" and who has deep connections in Nebraska's pivotal 3rd Congressional District.
"I'm a lifelong Nebraskan, wife, mother, rancher, small business owner and citizen legislator," Fischer said.
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