- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 7, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Jon Bruning scored major endorsements Wednesday from Gov. Dave Heineman and Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert in the fiercely contested GOP primary race.

The announcement could give a substantial boost to Bruning, the three-term attorney general who is locked in a six-man primary race to replace Heineman in January.

“This is rocket fuel for our campaign,” Bruning said.

Heineman, the state’s longest-serving governor and a popular Republican figure, previously had left open the possibility that he would throw his support to a candidate before Tuesday’s primary.

“As governor, in order to be an effective leader, experience in state government is important, and Jon Bruning has significant experience,” Heineman said. “His six years of experience as a state senator and nearly twelve years of experience as attorney general provide him with crucial insight and knowledge that makes him ready to be governor on Day One.”

Heineman also said he thinks that Bruning will bring a focus on economic development and education to the governorship.

Stothert said she chose to back Bruning because of “his leadership ability, his willingness to listen and his sincere interest in helping Nebraskans in every corner of our state.

“I always liked that he worked his way from the bottom up - just as I did,” said Stothert, a former city council member who was elected to her first term last year.

The other GOP candidates are Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts, Omaha tax attorney Bryan Slone, State Auditor Mike Foley of Lincoln and state Sens. Tom Carlson of Holdrege and Beau McCoy of Omaha.

Bruning and Ricketts are both generally viewed as the front-runners, having led the field in fundraising. Ricketts has won endorsements from former Nebraska Govs. Charles Thone and Kay Orr, as well as several national political celebrities who have been embraced by the tea party - such as former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Asked if Heineman’s endorsement comes too late in the primary race - six days before the election - to provide much help, Bruning said there are many undecided voters who will note Heineman’s endorsement.

“I think the timing is perfect,” Bruning said.

Heineman is leaving office in January because of term limits. He and Bruning will travel together to Kearney on Thursday. The winner of the Republican contest will face Democratic nominee Chuck Hassebrook, a former University of Nebraska regent who is unopposed in the primary, in the November general election.

Heineman has clashed numerous times with Foley over state audits of agencies that the governor oversees. He also has denounced several anonymous, third-party television ads that have attacked Bruning in the governor’s race. Bruning has alleged that Ricketts‘ campaign was behind the ads, a charge that Ricketts denies.

But Bruning and Heineman have also had their own disagreements over the last decade - particularly when Bruning supported former Nebraska football coach and U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne for governor in 2005, when Osborne challenged Heineman for the seat. Two years later, Heineman publicly backed then-U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel when Bruning announced he would challenge Hagel in the Republican primary.

Asked about those clashes Wednesday, both Heineman and Bruning downplayed their past differences.

“I respect that people are going to disagree with you from time to time. People are going to endorse another candidate; they’re going to disagree with you on an issue,” Heineman said. “I never let it get personal. You can’t live in the past. I live in the future. I care about this state, and I believe Jon is the best person to continue to move Nebraska forward of the six that we have in the race, given where it stands today.”

Heineman’s endorsement drew reaction from Ricketts on Wednesday.

In a statement, Ricketts portrayed Bruning as a “status quo candidate and a career bureaucrat,” and argued that Nebraska’s tax burdens are still too high. Ricketts said Nebraska’s largest state agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, has been mismanaged.

“Now is no time for ‘auto pilot,’” Ricketts said. “For effective reform and growth that benefits all Nebraskans, you need someone with the real-world experience to fix systems and improve services, cut costs, lower taxes, and create better jobs.”


Associated Press writer Grant Schulte contributed from Lincoln.

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