DAVID CITY -- Ben Sasse is standing in front of the ice cream freezer at Food Pride when the questioning begins.

One by one, employees and customers begin to gather in front of him and Sasse pauses during his answers to greet the newest arrival with a "Hi, how you doing, I'm Ben."

Sasse assures one man who wonders about his politics that "I'm not a screamer; I'm a problem-solver."

And then the question comes, the one that Sasse hears more and more now, the question that has begun shoving aside other topics that once dominated the concerns of Nebraskans during this 2014 Senate election campaign.

"What do we do about ISIS?" customer Tom Medinger of David City wants to know.

Sasse's answer is nuanced: Be reticent about going to war, but go fully committed to win if we decide to go.

American boots on the ground? "I don't know," he says, because that answer rests heavily on President Barack Obama coming to Congress with a plan. So far, the president is ruling out U.S. combat troops.

"The administration should offer a comprehensive solution," Sasse says. "We need to have that debate."

But there is no doubt that ISIS, the army of radical Islamic State militants who want to transform Iraq and much of the Mideast into an Islamic caliphate, is "incredibly dangerous and bloodthirsty," Sasse said during an earlier noon-hour event in the Weller Hall auditorium on the tidy Concordia University campus in Seward.

Sasse is the new face in Nebraska politics, a 42-year-old university president who looks much younger than that, a candidate whose mind processes and distributes ideas and information at warp speed.

When he entered the Republican Senate race a year ago, polling numbers showed him with 3 percent voter identification. Seven months later, he overpowered three major opponents, capturing just under 50 percent of the GOP primary vote and winning 92 of 93 counties.

Sasse has expanded his reach now with saturation TV advertising that turns an attractive spotlight on Nebraska itself and by conducting a high-visibility ground campaign that is taking him into all 93 counties for a second time.

When Sasse comes to town, he's hard to miss, arriving in a big campaign bus splashed in red and white.  

It's actually a 1995 RV, which was purchased in December for $15,000 with 36,000 miles on its odometer and a transmission system that would later break down during a campaign trip through Antelope County.

Last week, as the vehicle headed down the road from Grand Island to Seward, David City, Schuyler and Lincoln, the mileage figure spun toward 85,000. The RV would break down again the next night in Indianola, requiring roadside assistance that got the campaign back up and running three hours later.

Known inside the campaign as the Benebago, the vehicle is a mobile campaign headquarters and sometimes a home on the road. Its interior is more Motel 6 than Waldorf Astoria, a bit worn and western, comfy, but far from luxurious.

The Sasse bus also is family-oriented, a way that his children can be with him when he is on the road. The three Sasse children, who range in age from 3 to 13, are being home-schooled this year; daughter Corrie joined her father on this day, departing early for a ride home to Fremont for hockey practice.

"I wouldn't be running if I was going to miss a year of their lives," Sasse said. 

Sasse is high-energy, articulate and engaging, quick to smile, attracted to policy and ideas. 

And he's multi-layered. He holds degrees from Yale and Harvard, where he wrestled, and he studied at Oxford, where he quarterbacked a football team. 

Although Sasse has been known to drop to the floor of the bus to do 60 pushups, on this day he's suddenly munching on a days-old burrito to the mock horror of his young campaign staff.

If he wins in November and goes to Washington in January, there is little doubt that Sasse would be a magnet for the national media with the potential to develop into a national senator as well as a Nebraska senator. 

Sasse would be a young voice and fresh face in a Senate, where the median age is 63. 

More than that, he's a new-breed Republican, already labeled nationally as tea party or far right based largely on his support from national conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and senators like Ted Cruz of Texas. He was on the cover of National Review in January and introduced as a "rising conservative star."

Actually, Sasse is more difficult to label or define.

"I'm right of center," he simply told the students at Concordia.

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Ask him directly how he would define himself, and Sasse pauses before answering.

"A constructive conservative," he suggested. 

"The Republican Party has to be able to explain what we're for, that we're for people, not just against programs," Sasse said.

"Too often, Democrats think they can solve everything and Republicans look like we don't care.

"We need to be a party that is more than a party of no."

Obamacare is an example of what happens, Sasse said.

"A bad idea trumps no idea," he said. "We need to scrap Obamacare, start over and build a real health care program."

As a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration, Sasse likely would be a player in crafting alternative Republican proposals.

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Sasse mentions health care, entitlement reform, infrastructure investments and "an effective anti-poverty program" as big policy challenges he'd like to help tackle.

"I'm new to this," he said, "but I want to do a great job representing Nebraska and listening to Nebraskans.  

"I want to be effective for Nebraska and also help solve the nation's biggest challenges.

"And I want to build bipartisan relationships," he said during conversation on the campaign bus.

Sasse already is eyeing some potential Democratic partners in what he envisions as "a problem-solving caucus."

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

Sasse began his campaign day with an editorial board meeting at the Grand Island Independent. He would walk door to door into a chilly wind down North Sixth Street in David City and drop in at Latino America Grocery and Tienda Chichihualco in Schuyler before the day was done.

The David City walk was idyllic, taking Sasse down the sidewalk in an attractive small-town neighborhood past a blaze of colors from flowers in the front yards and the green grass of manicured lawns. At one house, Sasse was greeted by a young boy and his puppy.

In Schuyler, Sasse wanted to begin to connect with the large Hispanic community drawn to Colfax County by the Cargill meat-packing plant, which employs about 2,000 workers. 

"Tell me your story," Sasse said to a middle school teacher while they sat across the table from one another before she led him across the street to visit the markets in the Hispanic business district.

After the meeting in Schuyler, the bus headed back to Lincoln, past farm fields turning golden in the light from the setting sun.

In Lincoln, Sasse dropped in on his campaign field office, opening the door into a beehive of activity. 

More than 50 volunteers and staff members were at work assembling yard signs, preparing direct mail pieces, making phone calls with technology-driven speed and precision. A thousand calls in 20 minutes; a reminder of fast-moving change.

"I truly believe that on their front porches, the vast number of Nebraskans agree on the vast majority of things," Sasse had said on the campaign bus.

That includes "deliberating really long and hard" before even considering committing their sons and daughters to war, he said.

"I think we want to do big and important things at home, but go slowly, cautiously, conservatively," Sasse said, with a focus on the individual, family and community, not on Washington.

"I want to be fighting for things that matter," he had told the small group that gathered around him in David City.

"Not post office-naming bills. That's fiddling while Rome burns."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSDon.


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