- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2012

For a candidate who once promoted universal health care and spent a decade leading one of the nation’s most liberal universities, Democrat Bob Kerrey has embarked on a dramatic political makeover — one that now has him sounding more like a hardened fiscal conservative.

The Nebraska Senate hopeful, trailing by double digits in the polls to Republican Deb Fischer, has over the past few months attempted to outflank his opponent and convince independent voters and moderates that he’s better equipped to make the tough budget decisions vital to the long-term economic health of the United States.

Balancing the budget, changing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and sounding the alarm that the nation is dangerously close to Greece-like economic panic have become staples of his campaign.

In the deeply red Cornhusker state, where Republican Mitt Romney leads President Obama by double digits, the strategy is Mr. Kerrey’s best hope to return to the Senate.

“Washington is a mess. Both parties have made commitments we can’t keep and nobody wants to do anything about it,” Mr. Kerrey, former Democratic governor and two-term senator from the state, said at a Friday debate in Omaha, repeating a theme now central to his effort.

“I promise to work with Republicans to get our budget balanced so we can set a different course for our country. I promise to get on your side one more time to get the job done,” he said.

But Ms. Fischer, a little-known state lawmaker who captured her party’s nomination with heavy tea party support, including the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, also stressed spending cuts during Friday’s 60-minute debate.

She reiterated her support for a balanced-budget amendment while also promising that she’d oppose any entitlement reductions for those over 40 years old, a stance Mr. Kerrey blasted as unrealistic.

“Nebraskans are saying enough spending, enough debt and enough taxes on the middle class,” Ms. Fischer said, highlighting her bipartisan efforts in the state legislature to reduce spending and limit the size of government. “We want and need someone who is going to take the Nebraska way to Washington.”

Mr. Kerrey opposes a balanced-budget amendment, saying such a measure is unnecessary. He believes that, if elected, he’ll be able to forge the necessary bipartisan budget compromises without changing the U.S. Constitution.

If such compromise isn’t found, Mr. Kerrey sees a grim future.

“If we don’t address [the financial problems], it won’t be long before we’re Greece,” he said during the debate. “If we ignore it, God help the United States of America.”

Establishing himself as the more competent fiscal steward in the race is just one aspect of Mr. Kerrey’s strategy. The other is continuing to convince Nebraskans that he’s not a political opportunist who parachuted back into the state solely to run for office.

Before returning to the state, he led New York City’s The New School university, an institution widely regarded as a hub of liberal philosophy, for more than a decade.

Republican-leaning super PACS and other groups have targeted Mr. Kerrey’s time in New York City, and some analysts have noted that rural Nebraskans may feel uneasy about it.

To combat that, he’s stressed his years of service to the state, reminding voters that he’s been in Washington during times of great economic growth, such as the balanced budget years of the Clinton administration.

“I’m still Bob Kerrey,” he told the Omaha audience last week. “I look a little different, a little older, grayer, hopefully a little wiser. You know me.”

While battling Mr. Kerrey, Ms. Fischer has also been forced to distance herself from Mr. Romney’s recent comments about the “47 percent” of Americans who enjoy government benefits but don’t contribute to the treasury. She promised significant spending cuts, but made clear the federal government must provide assistance to those who need it.

“There are people who need help and governments needs to help those people,” she said. “Government should be there for them.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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