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It's anybody's game.
The once all-but-over Republican U.S. Senate race in Nebraska has suddenly become red hot in the final days of the campaign, as a last-minute advertising blitz and several high-voltage endorsements have made it nearly impossible to handicap the three-way race.
Attorney General Jon Bruning may still have the edge, but no one should bet against either State Sen. Deb Fischer or State Treasurer Don Stenberg, said Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
It may only take 35 percent of the vote to win and, in a low-turnout primary with three other candidates on the ballot who are polling in the single digits, that could be any of the three, Adkins said Sunday.
“I think there is enough volatility in this race that we could be surprised on Tuesday,” Adkins said.
What is a given is that it all ends Tuesday, when voters go to polls.
All three major candidates spent the last few days making their final pitch to voters.
Jon Bruning worked the telephones Sunday, reminding voters he fought against President Barack Obama's health care law in court. Deb Fischer strolled the Farmers Markets in Omaha on Saturday, selling herself as the new face in the race. Don Stenberg told voters Friday that he may not be the “flashiest” guy on the campaign trail but that he was the most reliable conservative.
For much of the campaign, Bruning has been the undisputed front-runner. He eclipsed his opponents in fundraising with a $3.5 million war chest. In comparison, Stenberg raised $700,000, while Fischer took in $400,000, according to the latest campaign finance reports.
The dynamic of the race, however, changed last week as two polls showed Fischer on the rise. Suddenly, Fischer became a hot commodity and support began to flow to her campaign, including high-profile endorsements from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Nebraska U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.
Then, there was more good news Saturday for Fischer when former Omaha businessman Joe Ricketts threw his support and money behind the Valentine rancher. His super PAC, known as Ending Spending, spent $200,000 on a television blitz, hammering Bruning on ethical questions and touting Fischer.
Bruning said he doubted that Ricketts' ad blitz would be enough to topple his campaign. He also acknowledged that Fischer may now be in second place but said she is too far behind to catch up with him. He said his opposition to the controversial health care law has won him strong supporters across the state.
Bruning was one of several state attorneys general who filed a lawsuit against the law in the U.S. Supreme Court. A ruling is expected this summer.
“I've led the fight. I haven't just talked about it. I've done it,” Bruning said.
He attributed Fischer's rise to the fact that, because he was the front-runner, he endured far more press scrutiny and has been the target of far more negative television ads than either of his two main challengers. “I think Fischer has been very fortunate that she hasn't had to defend her record,” said Bruning, who has criticized her for supporting a gas tax increase in 2007 in the Nebraska Legislature.
In the end, Bruning said he will come out on top Tuesday and will be a better candidate in the fall against Democrat Bob Kerrey because of the heated primary. “I'll come out on the other end stronger,” he said.
Fischer argues that her grass-roots campaign paved the way for her surge. She also acknowledged that many voters remained on the fence and that anything could happen on Election Day.
“The race is really fluid. I think people will walk into the booth Tuesday and, for some people, that's when they'll make a choice,” said Fischer, as she stumped for votes in Omaha.
Timing may be an issue for Fischer. She is clearly gaining momentum, but is there enough time for her to rise to the top? On Saturday, it was apparent that many people did not know or recognize Fischer but that her name recognition was on the rise.
It also was apparent that she has benefited from the idea that, for much of the race, Bruning and Stenberg have been trading verbal barbs.
Several people praised Fischer for remaining “positive” in the race.
“I've seen all the negative ads. I like the fact you're not doing that,” said Randy Haug, a 55-year-old Omaha man who identified himself as an independent.
Haug said he remained undecided but was leaning toward voting in the Republican primary. His one beef with Fischer was the Palin endorsement. “I'm not a big Tea Party person ... and that doesn't say a whole lot for me,” Haug said.
Stenberg is one person who doubts that Fischer is surging into second place. He argued that one of the polls that showed momentum for Fischer was done by her campaign manager's firm.
Most people still do not know Fischer, he said.
“I can't think of one candidate who started as an unknown in a statewide race and didn't spend a lot of money and was able to win,” Stenberg said.
For his part, Stenberg spent the final days of the campaign hewing to his argument that he was the tried and true conservative in the race, who has the backing of many of the leaders of the Tea Party movement, including U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint and Rand Paul.
Although he didn't raise as much money as Bruning, Stenberg was able to remain competitive in the money race with the help of third-party groups. The anti-tax group Club for Growth and DeMint's political committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund, spent more than $2.1 million in the race on Stenberg's behalf.
However, the $722,000 spent by Club for Growth may have helped Fischer as well. The group spent their money on television advertisements that criticized Bruning on spending and tax issues, without mentioning their support for Stenberg.
It is clear that the money spent by Club for Growth took its toll on Bruning. Several voters, including Tim Michaelsen of Columbus, said they originally supported Bruning but now have their doubts based on the group's television ads.
A pilot, Michaelsen said he was leaning toward Stenberg, saying he didn't know much about Fischer. He said he believed that Stenberg genuinely “cared” about Nebraskans.
Stenberg, who has been critical of Bruning from the start and who has gotten flack from some Republican quarters for being too negative, said he believes that people will go to the booths and vote for the person they trust the most.
“I'm not the flashiest candidate,” Stenberg said. “I'm not the new face people don't know much about. But I am a genuine, lifelong conservative.”
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