The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated in 2004 that it cost taxpayers about $140 million a year for federal agencies to manage federal grazing lands. Grazing permits and leases generated only about $21 million.
Fischer's supporters say the deal is less of a perk than it seems. Permit-holders must agree to maintain that land for wildlife and native plant preservation. Federal land also tends to be of lower quality than private pastureland.
"That's why homesteaders never claimed it," said Valentine commodities broker and lifelong Republican Dick Tetherow.
Fischer said she's open to suggestions that the government should put its grazing land up for auction. The current officeholder, retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, has introduced a measure that would make government grazing fees comparable to private rates.
But Fischer said comparing federal agriculture programs to welfare is offensive to rural residents and will backfire.
"I don't think the thousands of farmers that we have in this state would appreciate comments like that," she said.
Fischer's blunt rebuff of such question matches her no-nonsense reputation, earned over years as a rancher, local school board member, two-term state legislator and mother to three boys. Her oldest son, Adam Fischer, described his 62-year-old mother as "the enforcer" in the family when any of the boys misbehaved growing up on Sunny Slope Ranch, a sprawling operation of 10,000 acres of rolling, grass-covered prairie.
The ranching life was new to Fischer in 1972, when the daughter of a Lincoln school teacher and a highway department administrator cut her college education short to marry Bruce Fischer and move to rural Valentine — the largest town for a 130-mile radius with 2,700 residents — to help run the family ranch.
Fischer takes full advantage of her ranching occupation, appearing in campaign ads on horseback and dressed in a denim shirt and canvas ranch jacket. But she spends most of her time these days on the campaign trail in a dark business suit and heels.
Fischer can also exude a harsh edge, often sporting a furrowed brow or pursed lips — a stark contrast to the affable style of Kerrey. But her demeanor has softened over the course of the campaign — as seen in her first debate with Kerrey when she drew laughs by jokingly admonishing Kerrey to be nice when he warned she might be offended by his questions. And while Kerrey tosses off references to a litany of policy proposals and drops the names of those who've shaped the course of world events over three decades, Fischer appeals to Nebraska's ever-growing conservative base with elementary calls to cut government spending and repeal President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Kerrey acknowledges "there's a romance with the cowboys," but said there's more to Nebraska than its vast rural, agricultural sector, and more to the Senate. He noted that more than half the state's residents live in the Omaha and Lincoln areas.
"Do you understand the needs of urban Nebraska? You don't have to go to New York to understand the importance of the community colleges, of the University of Nebraska," he said. "Omaha is a long way from Valentine."
Republicans seem confident Nebraska voters will embrace a rural candidate, just as they did in the primary when Fischer beat the state attorney general and treasurer — both lawyers — for the Republican nomination.
"That has real appeal, and it's legitimate appeal," said David Kramer, a former Nebraska GOP chairman.
Beaumont reported from Omaha, Neb.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.