It's beginning to look like a race.

If both the results and the trend of voter sentiment identified in a new statewide political poll are accurate, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson is back in the hunt for possible re-election in 2012.

Nelson still trails Republican Senate candidates Jon Bruning and Don Stenberg in an automated telephone survey of 739 Nebraska voters conducted by Public Policy Polling, but he has narrowed an 11-point Bruning lead in January to just four points.

Here are figures released Wednesday by the Democratic polling firm for a survey completed on Sunday:

Bruning, 46 percent; Nelson, 42 percent.

Stenberg, 44 percent; Nelson, 41 percent.

Nelson held a slim 2 percentage-point edge over state Sen. Deb Fischer, at 41 percent to 39 percent.

"Ben Nelson still has a very difficult fight for re-election on his hands," said Dean Debnam, president of the polling firm. "But it looks like he might at least have a chance.

"The other time we polled this race (last January), it looked like he was pretty much finished, but the good news for him is that Jon Bruning is not proving to be a very strong foe."

Bruning, the state's attorney general, led Nelson 50 to 39 in the January survey.

Public Policy Polling is just one of a number of national public opinion firms in the field measuring political preferences, but its numbers are considered to be generally reliable. Polls, however, often are described as just a snapshot in time with opinions continually shifting.

Nelson continues to battle a dangerously low job performance approval rating of 36 percent. Although Bruning's favorability rating was even lower at 32 percent, the attorney general's 38 percent unfavorable rating was much lower than Nelson's perilously high 55 percent job disapproval mark.

Stenberg, the state treasurer, held a 34 percent favorable rating.

Fischer remains a largely unknown commodity, with 64 percent of respondents not sure how to rate her.

A fourth Republican candidate, Schuyler businessman Pat Flynn, was included in the survey. Nelson bested Flynn by 43 percent to 36 percent.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee was quick to seize on the fact that, although he has closed the gap, Nelson continues to trail in his re-election bid even after more than half a million dollars of statewide TV advertising was spent on his behalf in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, the Nebraska Republican Party filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that those expenditures exceeded the maximum coordinated spending limit between a political party committee and a Nebraska Senate candidate.

Democrats contended that limit does not apply to early issue ads that do not solicit votes.

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