One Week Out, Nebraska Senate Race Closer Than Ever

Kerrey, Fischer duke it out in campaign's final days.

Senate candidates Republican Deb Fischer, right, and Democrat Bob Kerrey shake hands following a debate in Lincoln, Neb., Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. The two are vying for the Senate seat of Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who is not seeking re-election.
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Bob Kerrey has been called a lot of things in his home state of Nebraska: governor, senator, and more recently carpetbagger for his decision to move back to Nebraska to run for the U.S. Senate after living in New York for a decade. But with exactly a week to go until Election Day, Kerrey's campaign is getting a second wind. The only question now is will it be enough to send him back to the U.S. Senate or is it too little, too late?

Up until this weekend when two separate polls showed Kerrey within the margin of error to win the race, the Kerrey campaign looked to be headed for a major wipeout. Most pundits had to chalk the race up as a loss for Democrats, who have struggled to win state-wide office in the conservative state, and Kerrey's Republican opponent, state senator Debbie Fischer, released an internal poll showing her up 16 points Friday.

"Anytime you are closing the margin of error people get pretty excited," Kerrey says. "We have some real momentum."

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Another sign Kerrey is closing in on Fischer is Republican super PACs are starting to pour money in. American Crossroads announced a $400,000 ad buy this week, which will begin airing across the state Wednesday.

Outside money, including campaign cash from the Democratic Senatorial and Republican Senatorial Campaign Committees had remained almost absent from the race, a sign both parties had not viewed the race as that competitive.

The tightening of the race reflects a widening geographic gap among supporters of the two candidates: Fischer is preferred as much as 3 to 1 among rural voters whereas Kerrey has been gaining ground among undecided voters in the state's urban centers of Lincoln and Omaha.

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Nebraska political observers say Kerrey's attack ads have also helped the former governor win back votes in Nebraska. Kerrey's campaign ran ads this month focused on attacking Fischer for a property showdown she had with neighbors in her rural home town of Valentine.

"The ad is full of testimonials, and it's been pretty influential," says Randall Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

But there are plenty of reasons Kerrey still is considered an underdog.

"Negative campaigning has a history of backfiring in Nebraska and our data shows that Kerrey's ads have increased his unfavorability rating and damaged his image," says Aaron Trost, Fischer's campaign manager.

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Many Nebraskans are skeptical Kerrey is running for the right reasons. He already served as a two-term governor in the state and represented Nebraska in the U.S. Senate for 12 years. More recently, he was the president of The New School in New York.

"Some people think it is inappropriate to come back and run," Adkins says . "I mean at this time last year he was not a resident of Nebraska."

And logistically, Kerrey has his share of obstacles.

"I became a candidate on the 28th of February and have basically been playing catch up. I would have done much better if I had been a candidate six months earlier," Kerrey says. "We had to crush the time schedule and that is hard to do."

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Campaigns have changed, also, since Kerrey ran for the Senate in the 1990s.

"The last time I ran in 1994, 1-800 numbers seemed high tech," Kerrey says. "The Internet was in its infancy, and now it is alive and well. It has become a huge part of citizens efforts to acquire information."

Congressional candidates also lack a top-of-ticket boost from President Obama, who had an extensive ground game in the state in 2008.

Pundits add Fischer won't be easy to beat. In her competitive Republican primary, Fischer put nearly 50,000 miles on her own car campaigning across the state.

"Fischer has not spent a ton of money. Instead she has spent a lot more time focusing on a ground game. She spends most of her time with small groups," Adkins says. "You don't see her on TV on the news quite as much as you would expect to see someone who is leading. Their campaign has been quiet. In some respects, it has to be. They want to sit on their lead."