In Nebraska Senate race, Republican loyalties are split

From left to right: Fischer, Bruning and Stenberg (Nati Harnik/AP)

For the past year, if you'd asked political observers to name the candidate most likely to win the Republican nomination for senator from Nebraska, the response probably would have been state Attorney General Jon Bruning.

But in the last few weeks, high-profile Republicans and tea party groups have stepped into the open-seat race and divided their loyalties among three top contenders, making a Bruning victory less certain. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson decided to retire rather than seek a third term, creating the up-for-grabs race.

State Sen. Deb Fischer experienced a major surge last week, boosted by endorsements from Sarah and Todd Palin as well as from Rep. Jeff Fortenberry just days before Tuesday's primary. That's in addition to the news that AmeriTrade co-founder Joe Ricketts had made significant media buys on behalf of Fischer's campaign.

"The winds have changed," Fischer's campaign proclaimed Monday as it touted her standing in a new automated poll of likely Republican voters conducted by a group called We Ask America. Fischer placed first in that poll for the GOP nomination with 39 percent; Bruning received 34 percent, and Don Stenberg had 19 percent.

But she's not the only candidate inching up in the race in recent weeks.

Stenberg, the state treasurer and former Nebraska attorney general has been making headway, too. Political action committees connected to the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Family Research Council, as well as Sen. Jim DeMint (who heads the  Senate Conservative Fund) have all endorsed Stenberg, who was the party's 2000 Senate nominee against Democratic Sen. Nelson.

In a sign of the perceived viability of these challengers, Bruning is running an attack ad that hits both of his opponents: Fischer on taxes and spending; Stenberg on hiding taxpayer spending using accounting tricks. "Accounting gimmicks, higher taxes, more spending," the ad's narrator states. "That's Don Stenberg and Deb Fischer." Clearly, Bruning's camp is aware of the tightening contest.

Having entered early last year, Bruning spent much of the race as the clear front-runner, racking up solid support and a significant fundraising advantage over his competitors. He reported raising $3.5 million through April 25, according to the Federal Election Commission, while Stenberg amassed $700,000 and Fischer pulled in less than $400,000.

Bruning briefly drew negative headlines last year for what critics said was a misleading report about an endorsement as well as for making inflammatory statements comparing welfare recipients to raccoons.

The race made odd national news again in early April when Bruning accused Stenberg of trying to follow his 14-year-old daughter on Twitter. Stenberg blamed an aide who runs his Twitter account for the mishap.

Bruning currently boasts endorsements from Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Tea Party Express as well as from sitting members of Congress such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of Georgia and John Thune of South Dakota.

As his competitors have gained traction on his ideological right, Bruning and his supporters have been further highlighting his own conservative credentials.

"I'm Jon Bruning, and I approve this message to let Washington know conservative change is coming," goes the Bunning tag line for his campaign missives.

On the Democratic side, former Sen. Bob Kerrey is expected to easily win his party's nomination on Tuesday. Kerrey remains highly recognizable with his 12 years of Senate experience (as well as gubernatorial service before that) to tout, but his campaign's bumpy start has contributed to a clear underdog status against any of the Republican front-runners.

At first, Kerrey rejected a comeback bid before relenting late in the race and finally announcing his candidacy this past February. Republicans further complicated his entry by legally challenging his residency and therefore his eligibility to run. (The state Supreme Court dismissed the case in March.)

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