Kerrey, Fischer aggressive on issues, avoid mudslinging in debate -
Published Sunday, August 26, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 11:00 pm
Kerrey, Fischer aggressive on issues, avoid mudslinging in debate

Click here for video of the Kerrey-Fischer debate.

• Showcase: Click here for more photos from the debate.


GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Republican Deb Fischer and Democrat Bob Kerrey disappointed no one who came to the Nebraska State Fair on Saturday for a really good political show.

In a spirited debate heavy on issues and raucous audience feedback, the candidates running to be Nebraska's next U.S. senator staked out their positions on entitlement reform, immigration and how to best confront the economic challenges facing the nation.

Fischer, a two-term state senator from Valentine, said she will work to lower taxes, cut the size of government and pass a balanced budget amendment. She promised to take the “Nebraska way” to Washington.

“Nebraskans have said ‘enough' — enough spending, enough debt and enough taxes on the middle class,” she said.

Kerrey, a former governor who served two terms in the U.S. Senate, said he would work to simplify the tax code, reform immigration policy and close the gap between rich and poor. And he pledged to do it by “shaking up” Washington.

“I promise you I will challenge Harry Reid as often as I annoy Mitch McConnell,” he said, referring to the Senate's current Democratic and Republican leaders, respectively.

It was the first debate between Fischer and Kerrey in their run for the seat that will be vacated by the retirement of Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson. Two more debates are expected before November's election, but the campaigns have yet to agree on details.

Both candidates were aggressive, giving fast-paced answers that highlighted their differences. They also avoided mudslinging.

Kerrey, for example, refrained from bringing up his “welfare rancher” accusation — a reference to a grazing lease that Fischer's family has on federal land in Cherry County.

By the same token, Fischer never brought up the Republican Party's criticism of Kerrey's return to run in Nebraska after living and working the past 12 years in New York.

“Nobody called me a carpetbagger when I returned from Vietnam,” Kerrey said in response to a question from the panel. “It's a phony issue.”

When asked about Kerrey's time in New York, Fischer declined to “approach the question,” as she put it, saying there are serious issues that need attention.

The debate harkened to a long tradition of statewide candidates meeting before State Fair crowds. It was the first such debate in Grand Island, where the fair moved from Lincoln in 2010.

Hundreds of fairgoers took seats in the Heartland Events Center for the 90-minute debate, which was sponsored by The World-Herald, the Grand Island Independent and RFD-TV, a subscription network dedicated to agriculture news and rural life. The debate was moderated by Mark Oppold of RFD-TV and the candidates were questioned by George Ayoub of the Independent and Robynn Tysver of The World-Herald.

Both candidates had scores of supporters in attendance, along with immediate family members. Kerrey's wife, Sarah Paley, and their young son, Henry, were in the audience, as were Fischer's husband, Bruce, and their three adult sons.

Gov. Dave Heineman and a number of state senators also attended.

The debate came as polls have consistently shown Fischer with a sizable lead in the race, but Kerrey argues that it's early and voters have yet to tune in closely.

When asked about the failure of Congress to pass a federal farm bill, Fischer said the food stamp program now makes up 80 percent of the legislation. She supports a U.S. House plan that makes cuts to food stamps.

“We're on a fiscal cliff,” she said. “This is a good example of it.”

Kerrey said it would be disastrous to remove the food stamp program from the farm bill. “It's a food, farm and jobs bill. It always has been,” he said.

The candidates also differed in their responses to questions about the deepening financial crisis faced by Medicare and Social Security.

Kerrey called the two programs a $60 trillion unfunded liability. Making the programs solvent would require a combination of targeted tax increases and raising the age eligibility for benefits, he said.

“We're headed to Greece,” he said, referring to the bankrupt nation. “We've got to scale it back, otherwise we're simply not going to be able to survive as a great nation.”

Fischer said the way to address the challenges confronting those programs is to cut taxes and grow the economy, which would provide the necessary revenue.

“Let me be perfectly clear, I will not cut benefits for anyone over 40. We need to honor our commitment to our seniors and those who are approaching that age,” she said.

On the thorny topic of immigration, Kerrey said he supports the position of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who would provide a pathway to legal status for immigrants who serve in the military.

Fischer said she will not support such a policy.

“I don't support a pathway to citizenship for anybody who is in this country illegally,” she said.

Kerrey accused her of being unbending on an issue that will require compromise.

“You're not going to solve this problem unless you get to the middle, and Sen. Fischer can't get to the middle of her own party,” he said.

The candidates were asked for yes-or-no answers to a series of questions, including whether they support the current plan for U.S. combat troops to leave Afghanistan in 2014. (Fischer, no; Kerrey, yes.)

Both candidates answered “no'' when asked if abortion would be a major factor in considering a U.S. Supreme Court nominee and “no” when asked how they would vote on the House budget bill known as the Ryan plan.

The debate format also allowed the candidates to question each other.

“This is a serious question,” Kerrey said, as he prepared to pose the final question of the night.

“Say it with a smile,” Fischer replied, prompting laughter.

“I'm trying, my heart is smiling, believe me,” he said, prompting more laughter.

Kerrey then listed his professional and political achievements in Washington and New York over the past 11 years.

“Is there anything ... that I've done in the past 11 years that would qualify me to represent Nebraska in the Senate?” Kerrey asked.

Fischer answered by listing her own professional and political achievements in Nebraska over the same time.

“I would say, Mr. Kerrey, you've served, and I thank you for your service,” she said.

“But I believe we need to look to the future. I don't think we can keep sending the same type of guy back there.”

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587,

The debate

Contact the writer: Joe Duggan    |  

Joe works in the Lincoln bureau, where he helps cover state government, the Legislature, state Supreme Court and southeast Nebraska.

State Department moves to delay Keystone XL pipeline decision
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
High court denies death row appeal of cult leader convicted of murder
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
Man taken into custody in domestic dispute
Omaha judge reprimanded for intervening in peer attorney's DUI case
Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Police seek public's help in finding an armed man
Saturday forecast opens window for gardening; Easter egg hunts look iffy on Sunday
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
A voice of experience: Ex-gang member helps lead fight against Omaha violence
Church is pressing its case for old Temple Israel site
OPPD board holding public forum, open house May 7
The thrill of the skill: Omaha hosts statewide contest for students of the trades
A recap of what got done — and what didn't — in the 2014 legislative session
When judge asks, Nikko Jenkins says ‘I killed them’
Nancy's Almanac, April 17, 2014: Trees save money
'The war is not over,' Chambers says, but legislative session about is
PAC funded by Senate candidate Ben Sasse's great-uncle releases Shane Osborn attack ad
Teen killed at Gallagher Park was shot in head as he sat in SUV, friend who was wounded says
< >
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Kelly: Creighton's McDermotts put good faces on an Omaha tradition
A comical roast Wednesday night in Omaha brought fans of Creighton basketball laughter by the bucketful. This time it was McJokes, not McBuckets, that entertained the Bluejay crowd.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »