If voters are yearning for a fresh political face in Nebraska, they got their wish in the U.S. Senate race.
Four candidates are vying to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns — and three are entirely new to political campaigns.
The four include a banker with deep Nebraska roots (Sid Dinsdale), a former Navy pilot with a dramatic story to tell (Shane Osborn), a small-town college president with a reputation as a policy wonk (Ben Sasse) and a respected Omaha trial attorney with a lengthy résumé (Bart McLeay). All are Republicans.
With neither a powerful governor nor a widely known congressman in the field, it is a race without a clear-cut frontrunner.
It is a race where everyone has a credible path to victory, said several Nebraska political observers and GOP elected officials who were asked their opinion of the field.
“Every single one of them could be the next U.S. senator. Every. Single. One. It's absolutely wide open. It's a level playing field. ... I don't see huge liabilities with any of them,” said Johanns, who decided earlier this year not to seek a second term.
So far, no Democrat has publicly expressed interest in the race. Vince Powers, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, has said the party expects to field a candidate.
However, if no Democrat emerges, the election will be decided in the May 13 primary, when voters choose the Republican nominee.
That's about seven months away — seven short months for four candidates to raise money, travel the state and introduce themselves to voters.
“This is going to be a competitive race because the four people who are involved right now are all good people with successful backgrounds,” said Gov. Dave Heineman.
With the help of the political experts, we broke down the field:
Dinsdale has extensive business and family roots that he can tap for support.
His family has owned Pinnacle Bank in Nebraska for generations.
In every community where there is a Pinnacle Bank — 68 branch offices are scattered across the state — Dinsdale arguably will have a foot in the door. He will have employees and others who can introduce him to the movers and shakers in each community, hold fundraisers and do meet-and-greets.
When it comes to money, Dinsdale also has an edge. It is believed he has considerable personal resources that he could invest in his campaign.
The hurdle for Dinsdale is that he is a political newbie. This is his first bid for statewide office, and he will have to learn the ropes and the issues quickly, without any major missteps or verbal gaffes.
It's easier said than done.
“For first-time candidates, there is a really steep learning curve,” said Chris Peterson, a political consultant who managed Johanns' governor bid in 1998.
By all accounts, McLeay is an attractive candidate — articulate and likable on the trail.
A longtime trial attorney, McLeay has been aggressively campaigning since he entered the race in the summer. He is walking in parades, attending community festivals and showing up wherever a politician is welcome.
Like Dinsdale, he is a first-time candidate and, he too, will have a learning curve.
Unlike with Dinsdale, many people in the Republican Party had never heard of McLeay before he launched his campaign.
He starts the race as a virtual unknown, not only to voters but to GOP insiders as well.
His biggest hurdle will be raising money to mount a competitive statewide race that will have to include lots of television ad buys.
The question mark for McLeay is whether he'll have the cash to compete.
In many respects, Osborn starts the race with an advantage: He's done it before.
Osborn is a former state treasurer. He is the only candidate in the race who has run a statewide campaign and who has held elective office.
He knows what GOP primary voters are looking for, and he is widely known in party circles. These contacts will be crucial when Osborn travels around the state.
Osborn also has a compelling personal story. In 2001, he became a national media darling — and a favorite Nebraska son — when he landed a crippled spy plane in China.
Osborn also has the best name recognition among the four, after serving four years in the State Capitol. (His last name, similar to former Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne, also doesn't hurt in the name I.D. game.)
His challenge is reintroducing himself to voters and turning his name identification into solid support.
In politics, there are three components to a successful campaign: money, message and media.
Sasse has taken a huge step toward achieving the first goal.
Sasse, who is president of Midland University, reportedly raised more than $800,000 in the first two months of his campaign. That is more than anyone expected. It would be a healthy number for a widely known incumbent, let alone a political novice who is making his first bid for public office.
The money goes a long way in cementing Sasse as a credible candidate.
But money goes only so far in Nebraska, where retail politics counts.
Sasse, who has a reputation as a policy wonk, attended Yale, Harvard and Oxford Universities. He also served in President George W. Bush's administration as an assistant secretary of health and human services. He is considered a health care expert who plans to make his opposition to President Obama's health care law a cornerstone of his campaign.
A key test for Sasse is whether a man with his résumé can connect with Nebraska voters on a personal level.