GERING, Neb. — A Twitter brawl broke out Tuesday between two major GOP U.S. Senate candidates, as Jon Bruning accused Don Stenberg of trying to dredge up information on his 14-year-old daughter.
Bruning called Stenberg a "mudslinger," while Stenberg fired back that Bruning was trying to avoid questions about his record.
The fireworks erupted as the two faced off in their first major debate of the U.S. Senate campaign.
The third key contender, State Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine, did not attend. She remained in Lincoln, working during a late-night session in the Nebraska Legislature.
The verbal jousting between Bruning and Stenberg began after Stenberg criticized Bruning for supporting the nomination of Eric Holder, a Democrat, as U.S. attorney general.
Holder has come under fire from conservatives who believe he is trying to strip Americans of their gun rights.
Bruning was one of more than 30 state attorneys general who signed a letter supporting President Obama's nomination of Holder in 2009.
Stenberg suggested that Bruning's support of Holder proved he was not a true conservative.
That's when Bruning went on the attack, saying Stenberg has lost three other U.S. Senate bids because he is a "mudslinger."
"This is just more mud. That's what you get out of Don," Bruning said.
Stenberg stood by his criticism, saying Bruning's support of Holder was a legitimate issue. "I think campaigns should be on the issues, and that's exactly what we're talking about," he said.
Bruning has said he supported Holder's appointment because he believed he was going to win confirmation in any case.
He said Tuesday that he agreed that Holder's tenure has been "troubling," but he did not back down from his decision to support the appointment.
Bruning then fired the Twitter accusation, accusing Stenberg of trying to follow his 14-year-old daughter on the social media website.
Bruning said his daughter told him, "Dad, that's kind of creepy.''
"I want to know what is a 62-year-old man trying to follow a 14-year-old girl on Twitter," Bruning told Stenberg.
He then said several times: "She's 14."
Stenberg replied that he does not send his own tweets. He said someone from his campaign, Dan Parsons, controls his Twitter accounts.
If Parsons attempted to follow Bruning's daughter's Twitter account, it was wrong, Stenberg said.
Parsons said in an interview that he doesn't remember requesting to follow Bruning's daughter, whose Twitter account is locked and inaccessible to the public. It could have happened "inadvertently,'' he said.
"We use several search engines to follow people, and we follow thousands,'' Parsons said.
The Stenberg campaign has about 1,700 Twitter followers and about the same number that the campaign follows.
About 200 people attended the debate at the Gering Civic Center. It was sponsored by the Scotts Bluff County Republicans.
Bruning and Stenberg were not the only U.S. Senate candidates on stage. Pat Flynn, a former insurance salesman from Schuyler, also attended.
Flynn argued that he is the only candidate in the race who is not a "career politician."
Bruning tried to portray himself as the only Republican in the field who can defeat the presumed Democratic nominee, former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey.
Bruning talked several times about his efforts to defeat Obama's health-care measure, noting he was one of the first attorneys general to file a lawsuit against the controversial law.
Stenberg countered that he was the "true conservative" in the race, He said he has the support of several tea party-type groups and backers, including U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, Club for Growth and Freedom Works.
Bruning and Stenberg, a former attorney general, also sparred over earmarks and the attorney general's budget.
Stenberg continued to question Bruning's conservative credentials by noting that Bruning requested an earmark from U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., to fund a drug-war program.
He made the line of attack after Bruning condemned the growth of "nanny government."
"The fact is that a couple of years ago, he invited nanny government into the Attorney General's Office," Stenberg told the crowd.
Bruning questioned Stenberg's credentials as a fiscal conservative.
He said that when Stenberg was attorney general, Stenberg hired outside lawyers to handle several major lawsuits, including one representing Nebraska in a low-level nuclear waste controversy.
Those "budget gimmicks," argued Bruning, allowed Stenberg to keep his budget low by forcing other state agencies to pay for lawyers to represent the state.
Bruning said when he became attorney general, then-Gov. Mike Johanns asked him if he could be more "transparent" than his predecessor: Don Stenberg.
"Not only are we transparent, we don't sub it out to contractors," he said.
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