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Ben Sasse

Ben Sasse, on the Midland University campus Wednesday, is a potential candidate for U.S. Senate in 2014 despite minimal statewide name recognition. "Obviously, I don't have the name ID of people who have run for office before."

FREMONT — Ben Sasse is in shirtsleeves on a bright weekday morning, welcoming some of the members of another record class of new students preparing to enter Midland University this fall.

"You are responsible now for your own learning," he tells them.

Midland offers them an opportunity to reach out, participate and grow along with a guarantee they can graduate in four years if they do their part, Sasse says. And that includes "an accountability to go to class."

This brief message delivered in the Kimmel Theatre is about challenge and personal accountability, but it is packaged in a positive, nurturing tone that combines expectations with support.

Back in his office in the Anderson Building a few minutes later, the young president of Midland sits down for an interview next to a wall adorned with dramatic events in recent American history.

A compelling photo of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery under a dark, forbidding sky; a young Lyndon Johnson helping bring rural electrification to poor farmers in Texas; the riderless horse in the funeral procession for Ronald Reagan, an event Sasse witnessed when he stood outside the Department of Justice building where he worked.

Sasse, 41, has been president of Midland since 2009, living with his wife and three children in a lakeside home in Fremont, the town in which he grew up.   

Under his leadership, Midland has grown from 590 to 1,100 students, and the university has its eye on a goal of at least 1,800 as it moves beyond acquisition of Dana College in Blair to eye a presence in metropolitan Omaha.

Now, after Sen. Mike Johanns' surprise announcement in February that he will not seek re-election, followed by Gov. Dave Heineman's decision two weeks ago not to enter the Senate race, suddenly, Ben Sasse is reaching for a statewide presence of his own.

Sasse, a virtual unknown in political terms with a name most people are just learning to pronounce -- it's "sass" -- has embarked on a statewide "listening tour" in preparation for a decision on whether to enter the 2014 Republican Senate race.

He approaches that decision with no illusions.

"Obviously, I don't have the name ID of people who have run for office before," he acknowledges.

And that would include former State Treasurer Shane Osborn, an announced candidate, and 2006 Senate nominee Pete Ricketts, who appears to be considering the race.

So who is Ben Sasse?

What does he believe?

"I'm a right-wing conservative," he says. 

But one who is focused on policy, challenges and solutions, he says, not partisan warfare, political advantage, personal attacks.

"I believe zealously in conservative ideals, but Nebraskans want people who get things done, not just those who scream at each other.

"Nebraska Republicans believe that Nebraska Democrats love their kids," he says, "and I believe we can have a constructive conversation with everybody."

For instance, he says, "we have to have an honest, adult conversation about social safety nets in the future," recognizing that entitlement reform must be addressed now before those programs, if not restructured, collapse of their own weight.

Too often, Sasse says, "Democrats have bad ideas and Republicans have no ideas."

Sasse has an ongoing relationship with ideas.

And his ideas have had an ongoing relationship with policy.

Armed with academic and intellectual credentials, Sasse was educated at Harvard, Oxford and Yale after graduating from high school in Fremont. He has taught at the University of Texas.

As assistant U.S. secretary of health and human services in the George W. Bush administration, he developed initiatives to control entitlement spending and modernize health care. Before that, he worked as chief of staff in the Office of Legal Policy in the U.S. Justice Department.

Ideas, reform, strategic planning, change and better outcomes are what he has been all about at Midland, where students have been provided with an array of expanded extracurricular activities, challenges and experiences to broaden their education, and lifetime tenure for professors has been replaced by performance-based "term tenure."

For a more detailed look at Sasse's education reforms, as well as a revealing personal profile, take a look at The Weekly Standard, which also conducted an interview with Sasse last week.

Sasse said he expected Heineman to enter the Senate race, urged him to do so and wrote a check for his campaign. Now, at the urging of others -- former Republican State Chairman Mark Fahleson has been mounting a "draft Sasse" campaign on Facebook -- Sasse says he'll take a serious look at becoming a candidate.

But he says he has not framed the agenda -- or the language -- of a candidate yet. Not prioritized campaign issues. There are no talking points.

"Obamacare is a big deal to me," Sasse says.

"It's terrible legislation," he says, with high costs, unintended consequences and bad outcomes ahead.

Already, he says, workers are being dumped from employer insurance plans or losing work hours and income so they won't qualify for employer health insurance or bring employers under the new insurance mandate.

An adult conversation about federal budget deficits and the national debt means you cannot find the solution by increasing taxes on the wealthy, Sasse says.

Instead of claiming that proponents of fundamental entitlement reform just want to "kill Grandma," Sasse says, it would be more accurate to approach that topic with the understanding that "Grandma also wants to have a better world for her children and grandchildren."

Job retraining programs and early education also are on Sasse's mind, and so is national security.

Along with the growth of regulation into what now amounts to "the fourth branch of government."

There's a message just forming, but no candidacy yet.

"The people I like most are the people who are principled enough on both the right and the left to believe it is their duty to advocate, even though they may lose, and are not committed to their incumbency over the future of America," Sasse says.

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

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Political reporter

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

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