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With Kerrey Out, GOP Race Reigns

With former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) declining Wednesday to run for Senate in 2008, attention in Nebraska turns to ex-Gov. Mike Johanns (R) and state Attorney General Jon Bruning (R) and what could be one of the most heated primaries of the cycle.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) had been lobbying Kerrey hard to seek the job he retired from in 2001, and might now turn to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey (D) or rancher-scholar Scott Kleeb (D). Both said Wednesday they were considering a bid to replace retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel (R), although neither immediately can put the seat in play the way Kerrey would have.

Kerrey running “would have been incredible,” said Nebraska Democratic Party spokesman Eric Fought. “He would have made it a national-level race.”

Some Nebraska Republicans predict that the Johanns-Bruning primary could be as bloody as last year’s gubernatorial primary that saw Gov. Dave Heineman (R) beat then-Rep. Tom Osborne (R). Incidentally, Heineman is backing Johanns, while Bruning last year backed Osborne’s gubernatorial bid.

Johanns recently resigned as Agriculture secretary and moved back to Nebraska to run for Senate. He is the choice of the Republican establishment, both in the Cornhusker State and in Washington, D.C., and has never lost an election, including six general elections and six primaries.

Bruning, who is just 38 years old, jumped into the race last spring and was prepared to challenge Hagel for the GOP nomination until the incumbent opted for retirement last month. Bruning closed September with $782,000 on hand, and has an impressive finance committee that includes wealthy Omaha businessman David Sokol.

Although Republican operatives following this race tend to expect a muddy primary that could get deeply personal, the candidates themselves contend that the race will be fought on the issues.

“Mike Johanns has said repeatedly that he’s going to make this campaign about the issues and is not going to focus on his opponent. That’s our approach to this race,” Johanns campaign spokesman Chris Peterson said. “There’ve been some ugly campaigns that have left a bitter taste in people’s mouths in recent elections in Nebraska. The real question is whether Nebraskans are going to tolerate any form of mudslinging.”

Bruning campaign spokesman Jordan McGrain agreed, although he took pains to point out that Johanns supported President Bush’s plan to overhaul federal immigration law while he was a member of the president’s cabinet. Johanns has since announced his opposition to Bush’s plan.

“We’re really looking to be positive,” McGrain said. “Our job as a campaign is to point out that we have a plan for meaningful immigration reform. Mike Johanns endorsed the president’s plan, which is wildly unpopular here.”

With Kerrey out of the picture, Republicans are as confident as ever that Nebraska’s solid Republican bent — combined with the fact that 2008 is a presidential election year — will ensure that the winner of the primary cruises to victory in the general election, much as Heineman did after winning the 2006 GOP gubernatorial primary.

But some Republicans say privately that they will feel even better about their prediction if Johanns is their nominee. The Republicans who feel this way generally believe that the primary is Johanns’ to lose.

Despite Bruning’s strong financial showing to date, Johanns fans contend that the attorney general’s fundraising well is nearly dry. They claim that GOP donors’ wallets will open wide for the former governor now that he is in the race. These Republicans note that Johanns has fundraisers planned in cities across the country, saying that he should catch up to Bruning when it comes to money raised and cash banked — possibly by the beginning of 2008.

“I don’t know where Bruning’s support is,” said one Republican strategist based in Nebraska. “I think the people who can give Bruning money have been tapped out. I think it’s an uphill battle for him at this point.”

McGrain acknowledged that Johanns is the favorite of the party establishment and conceded that that creates some obstacles for Bruning. But he disputed any notion that the attorney general will have difficulty fundraising now that Johanns is in the race.

Meanwhile, Democrats are refusing to concede the seat. Fought, the state party spokesman, noted that Hagel is the only Republican to serve as a Nebraska Senator in the past 30 years.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D) won a second term last year with 64 percent of the vote, even as Heineman won easily in the general election and now-Rep. Adrian Smith (R) secured an easy victory over Kleeb for the Republican-leaning 3rd district seat that Osborne vacated.

Fought said the Democrats’ path to victory in the general election is to nominate a candidate in the mold of Nelson, Kerrey and former Sen. Jim Exon (D), and to emulate those Senators’ winning campaigns. He said both Fahey and Kleeb could fit the bill.

Fought added that some other individuals are looking at running for the Democratic nomination for Senate — some of whom are political outsiders — but declined to provide any names. He said Nebraska is a lot more independent, as opposed to Republican, than most people outside of the state realize.

Both Fahey and Kleeb said on Wednesday they would take some time to consider their options.

Fahey released a statement underscoring the fact that he loves his job as Omaha mayor and has a lot to do in that capacity. But he said he would spend “the next few weeks” contemplating a 2008 Senate bid in response to many in his party who are urging him to run.

Kleeb, who currently is a history professor at Hastings College, said in a phone interview that he would spend the next couple of months making his decision. Kleeb lost to Smith by 10 points, but he raised just shy of $1 million and has kept his campaign committee open.

DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller indicated that like their counterparts in Nebraska, Democrats in Washington, D.C. were not abandoning the state just because Kerrey has decided not to run.

“With the Republicans stuck with a nasty primary over the next few months, we feel good about fielding a nominee who can unite our party and run a strong race,” he said.

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