Eli a long shot in Nebraska

HASTINGS, Neb. — Two years and two weeks ago, Scott Kleeb GRD ’06 felt like he could achieve the near-impossible: turn a red region blue for the first time in 48 years by edging out Adrian Smith for Nebraska’s 3rd Congressional District seat. The momentum, he says, was all his.

Until, that is, another Yalie rolled into town: George W. Bush ’68

Apparently, Republicans had grown worried: a leaked poll put Kleeb too close to Smith for comfort. So the GOP blitzed.

And sacked: the U.S. president — and a deluge of advertisements — suddenly touched down in the 65,000-square-mile district, which encompasses three-quarters of western Nebraska and two time zones. Smith would prevail, winning by ten points. (“We felt,” Kleeb would say two years later about the days leading up to Nov. 2, 2006, “like we were losing a point a day.”)

But here in Adams County, Neb. this past weekend — less than 72 hours before Election Day 2008 — there were no particularly visible signs of Republican fear of a come-from-behind victory by Kleeb, now the state’s Democratic candidate for the United States Senate. The polls placed the Republican, Mike Johanns, between 15 and 25 points above Kleeb. And the name-recognition battle remained as steep as the nearby Rockies: Johanns is a former Nebraskan governor and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

So why was the 6-foot-3 rancher, who earned his masters and doctorate in history from Yale (as well as a top spot on Rumpus’ 50 most beautiful list), laughing heartily with guests at his home Saturday night as they watched the Nebraska-Oklahoma football game? Why, when he could have been stressing about the next 48 hours, was he scooping his wife’s tuna casserole onto a plate with gusto and discussing aeronautics with a small-plane pilot? Why was he smiling so much?

Why, in other words, was Kleeb so at ease?

It might have something to do with the fact that he is convinced he can — and, according to some of his stump speeches, that he will — win.

“These campaigns do have a feeling to them,” the candidate told this reporter via the internal headset radio system of a twin-engine, four-seat airplane some 9,000 feet above Nebraskan bluffs, farms and ranches Sunday night. “And two years ago, the momentum was a different momentum than we have here.”

Back then, Kleeb explained, he topped out too soon — so soon, in fact, that he wishes Election Day had come earlier than it did. In 2008, however, he wants just the opposite: more time.

“The feeling right now is an upswing as opposed to peaking too early. The feeling here is toward us,” he said. “The only question is whether Tuesday will be enough time.”

Indeed, the candidate himself is far from the only soul in his campaign to feel this way. His is an optimism each staffer interviewed shares, from the campaign manager down — regardless of the recent polls, which, they like to point out, are outdated.

The other constant campaign refrains — that the race went “under the radar,” that local reporters haven’t “paid attention,” that undecided voters “are the key,” that Johanns may be a “huge titan of a name” but is no match policy-by-policy for “Nebraska’s” brand of change” that Kleeb offers — have spread to all corners of the operation.

All of which is music to the ears of Kleeb’s parents, who have served as mentors, volunteers and, above all, babysitters for their son’s two daughters throughout the campaign.

“I’m more optimistic now,” said his father, Al Kleeb. “I’ve completely abandoned that [initial] worry that this is going to be a blowout.”

But not everyone has. National Democratic Party officials, for instance, long ago dismissed Kleeb’s race as unwinnable; they directed resources elsewhere. Even Kleeb’s campaign has no evidence to back its claims of forward-moving momentum.

When asked if she could produce poll results to support the campaign’s optimistic rhetoric, Kleeb’s spokeswoman Alicia Menendez responded simply: “I wish we could.”

Johanns’ campaign, meanwhile, has not shown signs of scrambling.

“Really everywhere we go, the one thing that is absolutely consistent is support for Mike Johanns,” said Sarah Pompei, the Republican’s spokeswoman, by telephone from a rally in Omaha, Neb. that she said saw a turnout of more than 300. “Nebraskans know who Mike Johanns is. They believe in his record”

Therein lies the difference in messaging between the candidates and the key to grasping whether Kleeb could, in some spectacular final run, come from behind and rock the political establishment to its core.

On a television advertisement that ran here last night, Johanns boasted his slogan: “Proven. Tested. Trusted.” Kleeb, for his part, likes to talk about his perception that “every one of us knows, deep in our hearts, that this election is more important” than any other in recent history. Like Barack Obama, he points to a “broken system in Washington.” In the past week, he has criss-crossed the state in a pick-up truck plastered with the inked hopes — the signatures and messages — of more than 600 Nebraskans.

And according to Pat Kasson, of Lake Maloney near North Platte, Neb., it is Kleeb’s message that is winning out in one-time conservative districts.

“If it makes you feel good, we didn’t come across one soul — Republican or Democrat — who wasn’t going to vote for you,” he said at a town-hall meeting Sunday in North Platte, as he described an encouraging canvassing effort of his in a traditionally Republican neighborhood.

Lucas Atkinson, the Kleeb field organizer for Lincoln County, said that in addition to independents and Democrats, a last-minute target of the campaign is Republicans who would vote for both John McCain and, yes, Kleeb.

Dakota Rudesill LAW ’06, Kleeb’s field director for the Nebraskan panhandle, elaborated later Sunday that the outcome Tuesday could be swayed by three factors: his campaign’s “ground game”; the level of general voter dissatisfaction throughout Nebraska; and the Obama factor. (Since Nebraska splits its electoral votes, the Democratic presidential campaign has invested substantial resources to fraction the normally staunch-red state.)

Either way, Kleeb — who awoke today before 6 a.m. to make the two-hour trek east to Lincoln and Omaha, where he will spend his final two days of his campaign — does not seem too worried.

Asked during the North Platte rally the most “important” question of all — “How are your girls?” — he replied with a story. He said he woke up long before dawn Sunday to visit the grave-site of his grandparents on the occasion of All Soul’s Day. When he returned home with his wife, Kleeb’s step-daughter, Kora, ran up to him and delivered an enormous hug.

“I’ve never felt better in my life,” he said.

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