OMAHA | Nebraska is known for corn and college football, not political significance as a presidential battleground.
So why do the 600,000 people in the state’s second congressional district suddenly feel like they live in Ohio?
They are seeing dozens of political ads for Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, and even they got a visit from the Republican vice-presidential nominee.
It all started when Team Obama decided to take advantage of the state’s split electoral vote system, basically running a congressional race here for the office of the presidency.
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It’s also gone topsy-turvy - Republicans aren’t supposed to campaign in Nebraska. The state hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president in 44 years.
Mr. McCain still has no offices in Nebraska; Mr. Obama will open his third this weekend. Some ask whether it’s wise for the campaign to devote resources for one electoral vote in a district that backed President Bush by 61 percent four years ago.
• Explore different election-night scenarios with our ‘Road to 270’ interactive electoral college map
“It’s important for our success to get to 270 electoral votes and beyond to have lots of different paths to get there,” Obama deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand told The Washington Times last summer. “There are certain scenarios that get us to 269, which doesn’t win you the presidency. So Nebraska Two could be a very important place.”
The Obama camp sees encouraging signs in voter registration numbers, enthusiasm and in the district’s diverse, metropolitan Omaha.
Democrats also suggested McCain running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wouldn’t have visited unless the Republicans were worried, an idea she rejected. She blasted “pundits” who suggested Republicans were scared about the district.
“I so wanted to reach into that TV and say, ‘No, I’m going to Nebraska because I want to go to Nebraska,’” Mrs. Palin said at a Sunday night rally with about 6,000 at the Omaha Music Hall. “It’s truly because I asked to come to the heartland of America.”
Obama Nebraska state director John Berge rolled his eyes when hearing that quote. “Candidates don’t really have a say in where they go,” he said. “Any time a presidential candidate takes notice of our state it’s a good thing.”
When Democrat Ben Nelson signed the measure splitting Nebraska’s five electoral votes as governor in 1992, he thought it was unlikely his party would be competitive.
“I don’t think I ever thought that I’d see the time when it would be possible that could happen, but this is that time,” said Mr. Nelson, now the state’s U.S. senator and an Obama supporter.
Maine is the only other state which splits its votes, and Republicans are making a similar play for the blue state’s second congressional district.
Mr. Nelson thinks it is a fair system: “I don’t know that it would work for everyone, but for small states that would otherwise be flyover states it clearly is an opportunity to see the state, or at least a district, in play.”
Kris J. Pierce, executive director of the Douglas County Democrats, noted Mr. Obama drew 12,000 to Omaha before winning the caucus in February with more than 67 percent of the vote. “In 1988, we had the vice-presidential debate, and that was really nice to get the attention; other than that, there really hasn’t been that kind of excitement in Nebraska because it’s been a red state,” he said.
Mr. Berge said he has always wanted the district to be in play, but no one devoted resources to Nebraska until now. “Senator Obama’s campaign saw an opening,” he said. “This is the first time this has really happened, and we’re sort of the only game in town right now.”
The campaign has blanketed the Omaha media market, which also reaches Iowa, with ads. “It’s like running a congressional race and there’s a real belief that we can win it,” Mr. Hildebrand said.
Democrats call the 2nd district a “glimmer of blue,” and by comparison, the 3rd congressional district is one of the reddest in the nation; usually delivering 70-percent-plus wins for Republicans.
“There’s no way Nebraska will even be close,” said McCain supporter Jim Mittermeier, 50, who attended the Palin rally. “It’s too conservative a state and that’s why nobody ever comes here.”
Some Republicans are backing the Democrat.
Nancy Lawson, 61, voted for Mr. Bush in 2000 and 2004, but wrote in Mr. Obama’s name during the Republican primary and is volunteering for the campaign. “This time, I’m not voting for the lesser of two evils. This time, I’m voting for what I really believe in,” she said.
Mrs. Palin’s visit was the lead story on the local newscasts and Univision, and earned prominent placement in the next day’s World Herald, but Democrats remain hopeful for the first time in decades.
“There’s no better indication we’re doing something right than the VP candidate coming here,” said Obama volunteer Constance Hollenbeck, 70.
•Explore different election-night scenarios with our ‘Road to 270’ interactive electoral college map