Scott Kleeb (AP)

KEARNEY — The man who stands in Nebraska’s political spotlight appeared relaxed and confident Friday as he visited with University of Nebraska at Kearney students.

In about 48 hours, the president of the United States would be on the ground just down the road in Grand Island on a mission primarily aimed at him.

Responding to Nebraska Republican alarm bells, President Bush will come to Nebraska on Sunday to try to scuttle the 31-year-old Dunning ranch hand’s congressional bid.

Scott Kleeb’s spotlight is White House political adviser Karl Rove’s crosshairs. 

“Nice shirt,” Kleeb said as he walked over to Nathan Garst, a Kearney sophomore wearing an Adrian Smith T-shirt.

As Kleeb shook hands with Garst, the student asked, “Would you repeal the Bush tax cut?”

The barrage of TV ads claiming he’d vote to end tax cuts benefiting families isn’t true, Kleeb said, but only “a last ditch effort to call me names and distort my positions.”

Turning to enter the Fireplace Lounge in the Student Union, Kleeb urged Garst: “Come in and listen.”

After Kleeb left, Garst said he’s undecided whether he’ll vote for Smith, the Republican, or Kleeb, the Democrat, on Tuesday despite the T-shirt.

“I’ve got an idea,” he said, “but it’s not set in stone yet.”

And then Garst walked in to listen to Kleeb.

The object of all this GOP angst and White House attention wore jeans, jacket, open shirt, boots, western belt buckle, ready smile.

Around the room he went, shaking hands, asking names and hometowns. 

“I want us to talk about the future of our district, our lives, how we open opportunities, how we keep young people here,” Kleeb told about 50 listeners.

“We’re the homesteaders.  Sure, there are going to be struggles, but we come out of the spirit of pioneering, the spirit of tomorrow, the spirit of reaching.”

As polls show him running even, or better, with Smith in a congressional district the GOP has held for 48 years, Kleeb said, “Everybody, it seems, is campaigning against us now.”

What he faces, Kleeb said, is “not just the politics of name-calling, but $500,000 being spent on my head.”

“I’m willing to ride the storm,” he said, but he’ll need help to win the 3rd District seat Tuesday.

Nebraska can be a leader in the development of alternative energy, Kleeb said, “if we start investing in the future.”

The small and mid-sized communities of western and central Nebraska can offer economic opportunity and provide good jobs for young people, he said, if there’s investment in community colleges and universities and research and roads as well as 21st century infrastructure like broadband Internet service.

“You guys have ideas and I’ve got some ideas.  Let’s bring our issues forward together.”

Asked about Iraq, Kleeb said the United States needs to involve “the international community” and talk directly with regional powers like Iran and Syria just as it talked with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

“As long as it’s solely us, that’s not the way out,” he said. 

“This is the way you bring American soldiers home and not have a failed state.”

As he left, Kleeb was stopped a number of times by students for snapshots with them.

Walking across the campus to his campaign van, Kleeb said Bush’s visit “gives a boost to Adrian’s campaign.”

Kleeb said he’s “being bombarded by negative ads” which may have an impact even though “people are tired of it and everyone hates them.”

But the presidential visit also energizes his supporters, Kleeb said.

“And it highlights the fact that we’ve got something different going on here now.”

At the end of the day, he said, “It’s Adrian and me.”

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

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