Kerrey 9-11 Commission

Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey testifies on Capitol Hill to the Government Reform Committee on recommendations of the 9-11 Commission on Aug. 3, 2004, in Washington. (AP file)

AP file

If Bob Kerrey decides to seek a return ticket to the Senate seat he once occupied, debt reduction would be atop his list of legislative priorities as a national security imperative.

And, Kerrey said in an extensive telephone interview Saturday, he would be an advocate for Nebraska projects such as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's new Innovation Campus.

Legislatively earmarked appropriations give Congress the discretion to target some of the funding already appropriated to worthy projects rather than leave all of those decisions in the hands of the executive branch, Kerrey said.

If he decides to enter the race, Kerrey said, he would go to the Senate Democratic leadership to assure that he would be positioned to be most effective.

"I would ask for a variety of things that could make me be at least as effective as Ben (Nelson) has been in working with the state and Nebraskans as a strong federal partner," he said.

Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, who has decided to step down from the Senate seat at the end of the year, serves on the Appropriations Committee and the Armed Services Committee. Kerrey was a member of Appropriations and later the Finance Committee.

However, before Kerrey might attempt to convince Nebraskans he should be their U.S. senator once again, he has to persuade himself.

If he had to decide today whether to enter the 2012 Senate race, what would his answer be?

"Today, probably no," Kerrey said.

"I really have to persuade myself there is something I can do for Nebraska and for the country that is uniquely associated with my experience and talents," he said.

"I don't want to just be one of 100 senators or just help Democrats hold their Senate majority. Neither of those considerations would persuade me."

Kerrey, who served in the Senate from 1989 to 2001 before accepting the presidency of New School University in New York City, will be visiting with Nebraskans during the coming week as he moves toward a decision.

That means traveling to some communities to "talk to as many people as I can face to face," he said. 

If he decides to run, a campaign structure already is in place. Paul Johnson, who managed Kerrey's past campaigns, would be his campaign manager, transferring the apparatus constructed for a possible re-election bid by Nelson into Kerrey's hands.

Late last month, Nelson announced he would not seek a third term. 

Johnson probably will ask the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to fund a poll measuring Kerrey's support and assessing what could be the new political landscape, Kerrey said, "but that's just to be ready if I decide to run."

Kerrey said he fully recognizes he might not win if he runs, but that does not deter him.

"There are a lot worse things than losing an election," he said.  "Some of the happiest political people I know have lost."

In the past, Kerrey sometimes has shrugged off the importance of political setbacks when measured in the context of life experiences. Kerrey, a Navy SEAL, lost most of one leg in combat in Vietnam and was awarded the Medal of Honor.

In 2008, Kerrey also considered a Senate bid when Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel decided not to seek re-election. But Kerrey ultimately decided not to run.

What's different this time, he said, is he no longer has the obligation he felt as New School president to complete fundraising for a $400 million student and academic center. Kerrey left the presidency with all the funding in place.

Kerrey's wife, Sarah, is comfortable with a Senate bid this year if he decides to run. 

When he previously was in the Senate, Kerrey said, he participated in the bipartisan cooperation that produced hard decisions and the fiscal constraint that led to a federal budget surplus.

"We balanced the darn budget," he said.

As a member of the so-called 9/11 Commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Kerrey said, he often is asked if America is safer today.

In some ways, yes, he said.

"But on Sept. 11, 2001, we had $5 trillion in debt and we were paying if off. Today, we have $16 trillion in debt that is growing at the rate of more than $100 billion a month, and that makes us a lot less safe.

"We did that to ourselves."

And Congress urgently needs to deal with that now, Kerrey said.

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

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