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Competitive Terry Rematch Draws Both Parties’ Interest

A cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee this week forked over nearly $400,000 to help defend a five-term incumbent on the airwaves in Nebraska’s 2nd district.

The move is just the latest indication that the rematch between Rep. Lee Terry (R) and Democratic challenger Jim Esch has become a major headache for the GOP and a real potential pickup opportunity for Democrats.

Esch’s campaign recently received a half-million-dollar boost from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The challenger, who is trailing Terry by as little as 1 point in some polls, also is benefiting from the grass-roots operation of Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) presidential campaign, which is competing for the district’s Electoral College vote. (Nebraska, like Maine, apportions some Electoral College votes by Congressional district.)

“I think it’s going to be a neck-and-neck race,” Esch said. “To me, this is going to come down to turnout.”

And that’s where the Obama operation, which has three offices in the district’s population center of Omaha, will help, Esch said.

“It’s very exciting,” he added. “This is an effort that hasn’t been seen here in a long, long time.”

Terry’s campaign had raised $1.31 million this election cycle as of Sept. 30, with about $514,000 left in cash on hand. Esch had raised just shy of $600,000 for his campaign through the end of last month, with about $266,000 left in the bank.

The hunt for cash in these final days is not over yet.

“We’re still on the phones raising money,” Esch said this week. “We’re spending a lot of time making sure we have enough money to stay on TV.”

Terry’s campaign on Wednesday released a new ad attacking Esch on taxes and agriculture subsidies.

“With our economy struggling, the last thing we should do is raise taxes,” the ad’s narrator says. “Yet, Jim Esch is proposing massive tax hikes.”

The spot also criticizes Esch for pocketing more than $100,000 in agriculture subsidies.

TV ads haven’t been the only focus in the 2nd district.

This week, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) made an appearance in the district, and just weeks ago, GOP vice presidential nominee and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin dropped by to help fire up the Republican side.

Dave Boomer, Terry’s campaign manager, said the pressure, especially from the Obama ground operation, is not lost on his boss.

“A Democrat has not seriously contested this district since probably ’64, with Lyndon Johnson,” Boomer said. “There just have never been significant operations, and this is different.”

But, he said, Terry has a lot on his side, too.

While Terry ran something of a lackluster campaign in 2006, this time he has been making a push ever since Election Day two years ago. When Terry and Esch faced off in 2006, Terry won re-election with an unimpressive 55 percent to 45 percent. Neither national party paid much attention to the race in the midst of the Democratic wave that swept the country.

While the political environment isn’t much better for the GOP, both national parties are involved this time around.

“The party has stepped in,” Boomer said. “It’s the issues and it’s also credibility that has served him well. A heavy percentage of the people in the district have met him, talked to him, or his staff has helped them. He has a lot of goodwill with voters.”

Terry has won the endorsements of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, Veterans of Foreign Wars and National Right to Life.

Esch can tout endorsements from the AFL-CIO, the Change to Win union coalition and the Nebraska Farmers Union. Esch said he considers himself “pro-life” but says most anti-abortion groups haven’t backed him because “unless you say exactly what they want, you don’t get their endorsement.”

Though a conservative-leaning area, Nebraska’s 2nd district is more urban in a state better-known for sprawling ranches and fields of wheat and corn. Billionaire Warren Buffett makes his home in the district.

As the Terry campaign’s recent ad showed, the economy is dominating the discussion in the final days until the election.

“I think if this race were being driven by internal district factors today, I don’t think it would be much of a race,” said David Kramer, a prominent GOP operative and lobbyist in the state. He cites the ailing economy, Obama’s efforts in the district and the DCCC’s investment as some of the key factors in moving the race into the competitive column.

But Kramer said he thinks Terry will pull it out in the end.

“All of the energy and excitement in this district is about Lee Terry,” he said. “Our Congressman is going door-to-door every day. He has not taken this race for granted like they did two years ago. As a result, Lee is not in a position today where he was going to be outgunned.”

Barry Rubin, formerly the executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party and now director of business development for InfoUSA, agrees that Terry is working hard this cycle.

“I think if I was Lee Terry, I’d be very concerned that the ground game is going to put Esch over the top,” Rubin said. “If Esch pulls it off, it’s really going to be on the back of the Obama campaign. But Esch has run a much better campaign this cycle. … It’s going to be a barnburner.”

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