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GOP Roadblock: Ben Nelson

Centrist Democrat a Test of GOP Hold
Nebraska's Nelson Could Help Thwart Drive to Build Filibuster-Proof Senate

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 5, 2005; A05

LINCOLN, Neb.--Republican hopes of expanding the party's Senate majority begin in Nebraska, where first-term Democrat Ben Nelson is bidding for reelection in a state President Bush won by a landslide.

But Nelson, a leader in putting together last month's bipartisan pact on judicial nominees, is proving that red-state Democrats can still win fans by sticking to the political center and acting as can-do problem solvers who put pragmatism above party.

Already known for breaking with his party's leaders by backing Bush's tax cuts and considering the administration's Social Security proposals, Nelson thrust himself into the center of the effort to avert a Senate meltdown over judges. Last week, he proudly told Nebraskans that he wants Congress to stay focused on highway construction, retirement security and other issues they care about. One detail Nelson routinely omitted did not surprise those who watch him closely.

"Nelson will never say he's a Democrat," said University of Nebraska political scientist John Hibbing. It's a smart strategy, he said, in a state where registered Republicans heavily outnumber Democrats but voters embrace an independent spirit reflected in their one-of-a-kind nonpartisan, unicameral legislature.

Triumphant visits such as the one Nelson enjoyed here and in Omaha are troubling to the GOP. If the party is to inch closer to a filibuster-proof Senate majority--60 votes--campaign experts say, Republicans must step up their candidate-recruitment efforts and their critiques of Democrats in Nebraska, North Dakota, Florida and other states Bush carried.

Republicans stress that the election is 17 months away and Democrats face their own problems in several states. But Nelson's homestate visit suggests that centrist Democrats with discipline, campaign skills and luck can still generate considerable support in states their party long ago surrendered at the presidential level.

"I appreciate what you're doing on the judge thing. That was a work of genius," John Cutler effusively told Nelson when the senator toured Lincoln Benefit Life Co., where Cutler is a documents specialist.

Nelson's reception was just as warm at a luncheon hosted here that day by the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce--about as Republican a group as can be imagined. "We owe you a debt of great gratitude" for helping pass a bill limiting class-action lawsuits, said the audience member called on to ask the first question.

Nelson, a former two-term governor who lost a Senate bid in 1996 and narrowly won an open seat in 2000, has tried, not always successfully, to forge bipartisan responses to federal-employee bargaining rights, tax policies and other issues. Last month, Nelson drew headlines and accolades when he helped craft the compromise on judges.

Nebraska editorial writers are lauding Nelson, and business groups are thanking him for his pro-business efforts. Republicans, meanwhile, wonder whether they are losing a chance for a Senate seat in the state that gave Bush his fourth-largest margin of victory last fall.

At every stop, Nelson tells Nebraskans of his credo: "I'll support the president when I can, oppose when I must. I'll always look for a compromise and solution when possible, and I won't obstruct." In a meeting with 40 Lincoln Benefit Life employees, who asked no hostile questions, Nelson vowed to prevent Republicans from defining him.

"I don't want to ban the Bible," he said. "I don't want to take away your guns. I'm not for gay marriage." As he described the political left and right in Congress, a woman in the front row held her hands two feet apart to symbolize the political center. "There's a lot of us right here," she declared. Nelson beamed.

Republicans hold 55 of the Senate's 100 seats, and a few gains in next year's elections would make it extremely difficult for Democratic leaders to sustain filibusters, an action that requires 41 votes.

As in recent elections, Democrats anxiously ponder the Senate's political math, which does not favor them. The more Senate races tend to reflect presidential outcomes, the stronger it makes the GOP in the Senate. For example, Bush won 31 states last year. If Republicans hold all the Senate seats from those states, they will command the chamber 62 to 38, even if they lose their eight members from states that Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry won last November.

Last fall, Republicans won all five southern seats from which Democrats retired, and Democrats are desperate to reelect their incumbents in tough states next year. Topping the GOP's target list are Nelson and Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, where Bush took 63 percent of the vote last fall, only slightly lower than his 66 percent majority in Nebraska.

However, in both states the GOP faces recruiting problems. The only prominent Nebraska Republican to announce thus far is former attorney general Don Stenberg, a less-than-stellar campaigner who narrowly lost to Nelson in 2000. To the bitter disappointment of Senate recruiters, Rep. Tom Osborne

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