Gov. Dave Heineman on Wednesday endorsed Attorney General Jon Bruning in the Republican gubernatorial race, handing Bruning a huge boost on the way to the May 13 primary election.
Heineman and Bruning were joined at a late-morning news conference in Omaha by Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, who also handed her support to the attorney general.
The governor's endorsement is viewed as golden in a statewide Republican primary election, perhaps especially valuable in the vote-rich GOP stronghold of western and central Nebraska, and it could help nudge Bruning to the head of the pack in a six-candidate scramble.
Heineman pointed to experience, economic development and support for education as the three key factors important to him, and he said Bruning is prepared on all counts.
Bruning's six years as a state senator and nearly 12 years as attorney general "provide him with crucial insight and knowledge that makes him ready to be governor on Day 1," Heineman said.
Stothert said Bruning is "my strong preference" as a governor who would help her in Omaha in the same way Heineman has since she has been mayor.
The pair of endorsements is "rocket fuel for my campaign," Bruning said, especially in terms of helping undecided Republican voters choose a candidate next week.
Responding swiftly, GOP gubernatorial candidate Pete Ricketts said: "The choice is now crystal clear: Status quo and 'auto pilot' versus reform and growth."
"Jon is a status quo candidate and a career bureaucrat," 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."
With Bruning and Ricketts, an Omaha investor and the 2006 GOP Senate nominee, viewed as the frontrunners in the gubernatorial race, Heineman's endorsement probably had the most potential negative impact on Ricketts.
"I certainly don't think it makes it easier," Ricketts said with a laugh during a telephone interview conducted while he was on the road in western Nebraska.
The state needs someone experienced in business to bring "new energy, new focus and the fresh perspective and new ideas needed to drive down the cost of government (in) a high-tax state," Ricketts said.
Choosing a candidate who has been engaged in state government for nearly 20 years would mean "things are not going to change," he said.
Other candidates, particularly state Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha and former Omaha accounting executive Bryan Slone, had hoped they might be able to gain the governor's support.
Bruning has pointed to his long working relationship with Heineman throughout the campaign.
The Heineman-Ricketts relationship has been complicated, peppered with occasional behind-the-scenes tensions.
"While I appreciate Governor Heineman's service to the state," Ricketts said, "this decision is no surprise."
McCoy, the governor's most loyal supporter in the Legislature, sought Heineman's endorsement to help propel him out from the middle of the pack. Slone has been a Heineman friend -- and occasional golfing partner -- for decades.
Also seeking the GOP nomination are State Auditor Mike Foley, who has clashed with Heineman, and state Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege.
Bruning described Heineman as "a friend and a mentor" and said he is determined to "build on his great work on behalf of Nebraskans and take our great state to the next level."
Earlier in the day, Ricketts added Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana to his list of endorsements. Others include 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, as well as former Nebraska Govs. Kay Orr and Charley Thone and Rep. Lee Terry of Omaha.