Jon Bruning started as the front-runner and, even his chief rivals acknowledge, remains at the head of the pack in the final days of Nebraska's Republican U.S. Senate primary race.
The question now is whether State Treasurer Don Stenberg and State Sen. Deb Fischer have enough time to mount late-campaign surges.
By all indications, including spending by third-party groups that support Stenberg, no one is throwing in their campaign stickers before the May 15 primary.
Stenberg and Fischer are both banking on the idea that the race remains fluid, with a big block of voters still on the fence.
Bruning is trying to convey the image of an inevitable nominee as he continues to rack up key late-campaign endorsements. Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum was the most recent high-profile figure to back Bruning.
Bruning had the edge from the start, including time. He was the first of the three to enter the race, three days after winning re-election as attorney general in 2010. He again proved himself an adept fundraiser, running up a huge cash lead over his opponents. As of the end of March, Bruning had raised $3.3 million, compared with $628,000 for Stenberg and $356,000 for Fischer.
A lot is at stake for the Nebraska Republican Party. The primary winner goes up against Bob Kerrey, a seasoned Democrat who has won Nebraska races for governor and U.S. Senate.
Several polls have consistently shown Bruning in the lead, including a late March poll by Public Policy Polling that showed him with a 28-point edge over Stenberg.
A March 4 poll commissioned by the Bruning camp showed him with a 33-point lead.
The most recent poll was commissioned by the Fischer campaign. The statewide poll of 504 likely Republican voters conducted April 23-24 showed Bruning with a 9-point lead over Stenberg: Bruning 30 percent, Stenberg 21 percent and Fischer 19 percent.
It also showed 28 percent of likely Republican voters as undecided.
“Momentum is on our side,” said Aaron Trost, Fischer's campaign manager.
Trent Fellers, a spokesman for Bruning, dismissed Fischer's poll, saying they believe Bruning's support is actually growing in the final days of the campaign, exemplified by Bruning's recent endorsements, including by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Even though Fischer's poll shows the race may have tightened, it still gives Bruning a considerable edge, said Tim Hill, a political scientist at Doane College.
“It's not insurmountable in two weeks, but it would have to be the kind of thing — for Bruning to lose a lead like that, he'd have to really (do something) to lose it,” Hill said.
Although Bruning has outraised his rivals, the playing field has been leveled by an influx of spending from outside political committees that support Stenberg.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, a committee created by Tea Party leader U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, has poured $1.3 million into the race, primarily in television advertisements promoting Stenberg as the race's “genuine conservative.”
The group has shown no signs of giving up. Most recently it invested $250,000 in television ads from now until the election.
The anti-tax Club for Growth has spent $720,000 in the race, primarily on television ads attacking Bruning's conservative credentials. In its most recent ad, the group accuses Bruning of flip-flopping on health care, resurrecting a column Bruning wrote as a law student in 1992 in which he supported a “government-sponsored” basic health care system.
Bruning has repeatedly said his political views changed after law school — that he's grown more conservative with age. He is one of several attorneys general to file a lawsuit against President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
The fact that two outside groups continue to spend money in Nebraska on Stenberg's behalf is proof that the race can still be won, said Dan Parsons, Stenberg's spokesman.
“Jim DeMint is a fiscal conservative. He has to believe that Don Stenberg has a fighting chance to win this race. Otherwise he wouldn't be spending this kind of money,” Parsons said.
At the end of the day, voters will decide. And if history is any indication, only about 25 percent of Nebraska's registered voters will cast ballots.
Historically, voter turnout is low in primaries.
The lower the turnout, the more “volatile” the outcome. The candidate who can drive his or her supporters to the polls will have the edge.
“Voting isn't scientific. It doesn't matter what the polling data says. At the end of the day, it matters who shows up,” said Hill, the political scientist.
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