Democrat Bob Kerrey has been reintroducing himself across Nebraska this summer, while Republican Deb Fischer is making her first personal impression with many Nebraskans.
The World-Herald's Robynn Tysver spent time on the trail with each of the candidates in the high-profile U.S. Senate race. Only in The World-Herald do you get this up-close look at their contrasting campaign styles.
(Click here to jump to the Bob Kerrey section.)
No-nonsense newcomer efficiently works each room
BURWELL, Neb. — Deb Fischer isn't taking the politically easy route with a potential voter.
The operator of a livestock auction in this northwestern Nebraska town is complaining to Fischer about overreaching government regulations. After listening for a few minutes, Fischer cuts to the chase: She tells the businessman she needs specifics if she's going to help.
“Don't tell me there's too many regulations and (then) don't give me any examples,” Fischer says. “If I get elected, you need to give me a list of regulations that you want addressed.”
“Deal?” she asks, thrusting out her hand to shake the man's hand at Burwell's Senior Center. “Deal,” he responds.
After more than a year on the campaign trail, Fischer is honing her style. She is a direct, no-nonsense politician whose stump speech contains few rhetorical flourishes and who efficiently works a room, listening more than talking to prospective voters.
Despite the miles she has logged and her stunning come-from-behind-win in the Republican primary, Fischer remains a relative unknown to many voters — even though she is the clear frontrunner. In some ways, she is almost an after-thought to those who have focused on her better-known opponent, Democrat Bob Kerrey.
More than a half-dozen people interviewed recently in Burwell — where Fischer walked in the city's parade — all preferred to talk about why they either supported or opposed Kerrey, rather than talk about Fischer.
Several people who backed the Republican candidate acknowledged they knew little about her, but they knew enough about Kerrey to oppose him.
Peggy Haskell, a Burwell Republican who said she would never vote for Kerrey, put it bluntly: “It's kind of a sad state of affairs when you vote against somebody rather than for somebody.”
The fact that this race is more about Kerrey allows Fischer, a two-term state senator, to run a relatively low-key campaign. Fischer prefers walking in parades and chatting with voters at intimate meet-and-greets in coffee shops, rather than holding press conferences and launching broadsides against her opponent.
Her under-the-radar campaign style has allowed her — for the most part — to stay out of the political mud thicket. During the primary, she remained relatively positive while her better-known opponents, Don Stenberg and Jon Bruning, duked it out, essentially ignoring Fischer.
In the end, a super PAC rode into the race in support of Fischer, dumping $250,000 in anti-Bruning and pro-Fischer ads.
Now, during the general election, Fischer has been helped again by two national super PACs that have spent more than $2 million attacking Kerrey.
Few voters hold Fischer accountable for the anti-Kerrey super PAC spending. Several in Burwell and Omaha walked up to Fischer to congratulate her for staying out of the fray — even though her campaign and others have taken their fair share of shots at Kerrey, calling him “out of touch with Nebraska and desperate” in one television ad.
“She's focusing on the issues, rather than just slamming her opponent,” said Skylar Loeffler, a Burwell rancher.
Fischer repeatedly touts her pledge to run a positive campaign, talking little about the super PACs. In Omaha, she did briefly acknowledge them, but argued she has no control over out-of-state spending in Nebraska in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for the controversial political committees.
“I certainly don't like to see negative ads and I don't like to see them run against me. But that's the fact of life we now have,” she told an Omaha Kiwanis group.
It's clear that the political charge that rankles Fischer the most is the allegation by Kerrey that she and her family are “welfare ranchers” because they participate in a controversial federal grazing program. Wherever she goes, Fischer mentions the criticism, saying Kerrey and others don't understand the program and that her family doesn't receive a “subsidy” because they pay rent for the land.
For the most part, Fischer has adopted the role of political newcomer, preferring to talk in generalities rather than release detailed policy positions.
She sticks to a well-honed stump speech that closely resembles national Republican Party talking points: repeal President Obama's health care law, reduce government regulations and balance the budget with spending cuts.
Several people in Omaha said they would have preferred more meat on Fischer's policy proposals. At least one said Fischer lagged Kerrey in understanding the national issues.
“She's a pleasant lady,” said Dick Walch, a lifelong Republican who became a Democrat this spring to vote in a congressional race. “(But) Bob Kerrey has experience and he has seniority.”
Others, however, said they simply liked the way Fischer carried herself: professional, straightforward and to the point.
“My wife and I are common people and we like how she presents herself,” said Lyle Kruse, an Omaha Republican and retired businessman.
‘Carpetbagger' criticism softens at close range
HASTINGS, Neb. — It's late in the afternoon when Bob Kerrey straddles a bar stool in this central Nebraska town, looking to kill a little time on the campaign trail. The former Nebraska governor is barely seated before he is spotted by two guys who exchange a raised-eyebrow glance at the end of the bar.
The look is easy to read: a political celebrity is in their midst, and they're not impressed.
Not immediately, anyway.
Soon Kerrey is chatting them up over a Budweiser in Murphy's Wagon Wheel, talking about hunting dogs and drought. When he leaves, he leaves behind two admirers who dub him an “easygoing guy.”
The former political wonder who charmed Nebraskans with his wit in the 1980s still has “the magic,” the ability to soften skeptics and energize crowds. One on one — in person — Kerrey is a force on the campaign trail.
But there is only so much of Kerrey to go around, and he is bucking a head wind of anger from many Nebraskans who resent his comeback bid. He is no longer a popular incumbent but the underdog fighting to keep the U.S. Senate race on the state's radar.
The anger aimed at Kerrey — he's been flipped the bird a few times at parades — runs directly back to New York City. Many Nebraskans resent the idea that the Democrat could fly back to the state, register to vote and run for his old office after living 12 years in another state.
The resentment is especially strong in central and western Nebraska, where more than a dozen people in Burwell, Kearney and Red Cloud instantly brought up New York when asked their opinions of the Senate race.
Even people who said they liked and supported Kerrey in the past were troubled by his sudden return. Chuck Wagner, a Republican and retired insurance agent from Ord, said he may not always have voted for Kerrey, but he always “respected” the decorated war hero. Not anymore.
“I just think the whole Kerrey thing, coming back, it's so slimy. I almost can't believe he's doing it,” said Wagner, who chatted at the Burwell parade last week.
Like many voters angry with Kerrey, Wagner said he doesn't know much about Republican Deb Fischer, but he'll vote for her anyway. “My vote would probably be more about voting against Bob Kerrey than voting for Deb Fischer,” Wagner said.
Kerrey acknowledges his NYC baggage wherever he goes, telling audiences he never thought his Nebraska credentials would be questioned before he begins reciting them: He was born and raised in Nebraska, returned to the state after the Vietnam War, lived most of his adult life in Nebraska and owns property in the state.
Kerrey says much of the anger directed at his residency has been fueled by negative television advertisements, including some from the super PAC run by Bush-era political operative Karl Rove.
Some of the ads have suggested Kerrey was recruited by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid after the two cut a secret deal. Kerrey adamantly denies the notion, saying no one could talk him into running. He says there was no secret deal. He simply called Reid to ask that his seniority be restored if he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
“People have the impression that Harry Reid has talked me into running. If people believe I'm running because of Harry Reid, it's hard to imagine me winning,” Kerrey said.
Kerrey is right on that point. Several voters at the Burwell parade expressed the opinion that he was recruited by national Democrats, an idea they equated to Democrats in Washington, D.C., attempting to manipulate Nebraska.
“Don't cram him down our throats. We're not that dumb,” said Sandy Lowery, a Burwell rancher.
Not everyone, however, believes Kerrey's time in New York City — and, yes, people on the trail frequently say it in the accent popularized in Pace picante sauce commercials — should be held against him.
Eloyde Mueller, a retired farmer from rural Jansen, searches out a reporter to complain about those who label Kerrey a “carpetbagger.”
“It's nonsense,” said Mueller, who asks how a man born in Nebraska and who served his state and country for decades can be treated as an outsider now.
She says Republicans didn't have a problem when Chuck Hagel returned to the state after a 20-plus-year absence to run for the Senate, but now that a Democrat has returned, it's a campaign issue.
“I think it's disgusting,” Mueller said.
The hope for Kerrey lies with Kerrey.
At a gathering of young professionals in Kearney, a young man who works for a coal-fired power plant came to the event with “mixed opinions” of the politician. After an animated discussion in which Kerrey discussed the pros and cons of federal regulations, Cole Brodine softened.
“I'm certainly more positive about his campaign,” said Brodine, 30.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1309, firstname.lastname@example.org