Former Gov. Kay Orr wants state Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine to enter the 2012 Republican Senate race.

"I would talk to Deb first, but her leadership and ability lead me to believe I would throw my support to her," Orr said during an extensive interview at her home in Lincoln this week.

She said she would want to ask Fischer a few questions before cementing her support.

Fischer has acknowledged she will consider a Senate bid but wants to delay that decision until the Legislature adjourns in June. She is at the center of some of this session's major legislation, most notably her own effort to launch accelerated road construction by dedicating the revenue from one-half cent of the current state sales tax to that purpose, beginning in 2013.

Fischer's father, Jerry Strobel, was director of the Department of Roads during the Orr administration.

Orr, a conservative pillar of the Republican Party, said she thinks there should be more candidates in the GOP Senate race than Attorney General Jon Bruning, State Treasurer Don Stenberg and Schuyler businessman Pat Flynn.

And, with carefully chosen words, she indicated she wouldn't entirely rule herself out of the mix if others do not step forward.

"I can't imagine any set of circumstances that would cause me to join that race," Orr said. But, she acknowledged, that is different than saying absolutely no.

In a followup phone conversation on Thursday, Orr said she wants a Republican nominee who will place principle ahead of political calculation.

"Too often, the discussion is about political consequences and political fallout," she said. "There is too little consideration of (whether) this is the right thing to do, the principled thing to do.

"That's why we need a person of strong moral character and principles," she said. 

Orr said she believes the Republican nominee will unseat Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson next year.

Nelson may be "relying on the passage of time" to work in his favor, she said, but "I don't think the people of Nebraska will forget the 'Cornhusker Kickback,'" the moniker attached to the Medicaid funding negotiations that preceded his critical Senate vote to pass the health care reform bill.

"He's got some other issues," Orr said, "and with a full-fledged airing of those, I think he faces a tough road."

Nelson defeated Orr when she sought re-election as governor in 1990. After serving two terms, Nelson was elected to the Senate in 2000.

Orr, who was the first elected Republican female governor in U.S. history, was heavily recruited in 2006 by the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and its chairwoman, then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, to challenge Nelson in his first Senate re-election bid. Orr declined.

Nelson and Orr are contemporaries. She turned 72 in January; he will be 70 in May.

Orr's comments provide the most dramatic evidence yet that the Republican Senate primary field may not be complete.

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"I believe a contested primary could be good for whoever emerges as the nominee," she said. 

Next year is a presidential election year and the right time to have "passionate discussions about policy issues," Orr said. 

"We should have heated discussions -- passionate, but more civil," she said.

Orr recently has been more publicly engaged, speaking at a Republican event in Kearney and appearing at a rally in Lincoln that called for reform or repeal of the state's Commission of Industrial Relations, the state agency empowered to resolve public sector labor disputes.

"I think it should be abolished," she said. 

Orr said the emergence of the tea party movement is a good opportunity for the Republican Party to expand and energize its base.

"I am first of all a conservative and second a Republican," she said.

"I am still hanging onto the Republican Party and hoping for a principled, experienced person of good moral character and leadership skills" to lead the GOP into the presidential election, she said.

Orr has no presidential candidate in mind yet, although she said governors have the most appropriate executive experience. It would be a plus to have business experience, she said.

"I think we have a good, strong bench," she said. "It's an exciting time for the Republican Party."

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

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