Don Stenberg

Don Stenberg makes a point during the Nebraska Republican Senate debate with Jon Bruning and Deb Fischer in Omaha Tuesday, May 1, 2012. (The Associated Press)

The Associated Press

Don Stenberg was a half-miler in high school and college, but he's been a long distance runner ever since.

Suggest to him that he's dogged and determined, and he smiles and nods his head.

Stenberg is seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate for the fourth time this year. Twice he has been defeated in the Republican primary race, but he won his party's nomination in 2000 and chased Ben Nelson to the wire, losing by a slender 15,000-vote margin.

In 1990, he was elected attorney general on his second try after unsuccessful bids for the Legislature and lieutenant governor. He was elected state treasurer in 2010.

If you are Don Stenberg and you have set your eyes on a Senate seat -- attorney general was the earlier goal -- you just keep running, and you never give up.

"I walked onto the Nebraska track team," he recalled during an interview at his campaign headquarters in the Haymarket. "I wasn't a tremendous athlete, but I kept working hard. And I lettered a couple of times."

But this race isn't about the past, it's about the future, Stenberg will tell you.

At a time when federal budget deficits are piling up and the national debt is soaring into new territory every day, he argues that it's time for the tried and true conservative, "the genuine, lifelong conservative," a man who can be trusted. 

Stenberg believes he is the man for this moment.

Attorney General Jon Bruning, who has been leading the crowded six-candidate Republican field in polling surveys and fundraising results, is "a pretend conservative," Stenberg contends.

"It was obvious early on that Bruning was the establishment Republican candidate," he said. 

And so Stenberg and his campaign team, notably trusted adviser Dan Parsons, constructed a strategy that has paid off in terms of attracting national conservative support, which triggered a commitment of substantial outside financial resources that provided the firepower to essentially even the TV ad war with Bruning.

Senate Conservatives Fund, headed by Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and the anti-tax Club for Growth have funded TV ads for Stenberg. The Club's TV ad campaign essentially is a negative attack hammering Bruning. Also supporting Stenberg is Freedom Works, the political action committee chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

"We needed to look for a strategy to compete," Stenberg said. "We spoke at a variety of tea party events. And we looked to organizations with a record of helping non-establishment conservative candidates."

The response has helped offset Stenberg's lack of fundraising prowess, which often has been his Achilles heel.

At 63, he is calm and disciplined, firm in his beliefs, and almost professorially focused on issues. He is able to zing an arrow at an opponent's character or ethical behavior without the slightest change of inflection or tone.

"Jon Bruning can't be trusted to be consistently conservative if we send him to Washington," Stenberg said. "We can't count on him.

"As attorney general, Jon has plunged headlong into investments in numerous businesses in which there is potential for a conflict of interest for an attorney general, who enforces banking, insurance and environmental laws as well as professional licenses."

Stenberg said he is the candidate with the solid conservative record on fiscal, pro-life and gun rights issues.

"The perception that there is not really that much difference on issues in the Senate race is not accurate," he said. "If you look strictly at what the candidates say today, there's some reason to think that is true. But if you look at the records, you will see important differences."

Stenberg continually points to liberal views Bruning expressed in Daily Nebraskan columns when he was a University of Nebraska-Lincoln law student and questions a couple of his actions as attorney general in suggesting a softness in Bruning's pro-life and gun rights commitments. Bruning, who has become clearly annoyed by Stenberg's constant fire, dismisses all of that as either outdated or a misleading view of his record. 

In 1996, Stenberg lost his first bid for the Senate when Chuck Hagel came from behind and won the Republican nomination. Subsequently, Hagel defeated then-Gov. Ben Nelson in the general election. 

In 2006, Pete Ricketts defeated Stenberg in the GOP primary election, then lost a general election scrap with Nelson.

If he's elected to the Senate this year, Stenberg said, he would "focus on the big issues, beginning with the repeal of Obamacare," and moving on to spending cuts, debt reduction, development of domestic energy sources, a requirement that major new government regulations must be approved by Congress and action to secure leaky U.S. borders from the flow of illegal immigrants.

Stenberg said he would vote to extend Bush administration tax cuts while seeking tax reform, turn Medicaid into a block-grant program fully administered by the states and give younger workers the option of investing a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts.

His fundamental goal: "smaller government, less regulation, lower taxes and more personal freedom."

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.

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Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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