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Mike Meister
Democratic challenger Mike Meister formally announced his gubernatorial candidacy on the west steps of the statehouse on July 29, 2010. (ERIC GREGORY / Lincoln Journal Star)

OMAHA -- Democrat Mike Meister faces more than just the challenge of raising enough money over the next 90 days to mount a serious campaign against incumbent Republican Gov. Dave Heineman. He must also find someone to join him on the ticket as a candidate for lieutenant governor before Sept. 1.

Meister, a Scottsbluff attorney, started his campaign behind the eight ball when he was nominated from the floor of the Nebraska Democratic state convention just two weeks ago to replace Mark Lakers, who dropped out of the race last month amid questions about his campaign finance reports. Meister's late nomination left him only 100 days to campaign before the November general election that pits him against the popular incumbent.

Meister said his campaign is in the process of forming a committee to try to find a No. 2 who will appeal to city dwellers in the eastern part of the state and rural residents in the west.

"We're actually looking for somebody to kind of pull that east/west connection," he said. "It's slim. There are not that many Democrats in the farm system."

And Meister said he wouldn't be above signing up a moderate Republican for the job - if state law allowed for it.

"It's intriguing," Meister said of the idea of running with a moderate Republican. "I don't foreclose any ideas. Everything is out there, because frankly, it has to be until a firm decision is made."

Until a constitutional amendment approved by voters went into effect in 2002, candidates for lieutenant governor ran independently, meaning the governor had no say-so in who filled the spot.

When the law changed, it was written to require that candidates for lieutenant governor be selected from within the political party of the gubernatorial candidate who selected him or her. The selection must be made and paperwork making it official submitted to the Nebraska Secretary of State's office by Sept. 1 for the person to appear on the November ballot, according to state law.

The Nebraska Secretary of State's Office declined to comment on the consequences to Meister if he does not select a running mate by Sept. 1.

"We don't comment on hypotheticals," said Assistant Secretary of State Neil Erickson.

Meister said he will not repeat 2002 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stormy Dean's mistake of offering the slot to someone he's not sure will take it.

In that instance, Dean was forced to admit only minutes after announcing his selection of Omaha lawyer Melany Chesterman that he had asked four other people to run with him before Chesterman consented.

"I've had a few names floated at me by some folks, but in all honesty ... a lot of these people, I don't know," Meister said.

"Part of this process is sitting down and saying, 'OK; Can we work together? Are you willing to work with a goober from western Nebraska?"' he said, making reference to recent comments by Republican Attorney General Jon Bruning, who said Meister "put the goober in gubernatorial."

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Meister's plan to bring in someone who can appeal to eastern and western Nebraska is "as good as any," said Dr. John Comer, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"A person who has ... a constituency in the west, that makes sense," Comer said. "But, on the other hand ... maybe it would make more sense to energize his base by a choice from the eastern part of the state that can draw out a larger number of Democrats."

Most of Nebraska's lieutenant governors labored in relative obscurity until the 1990s. While the lieutenant governor's main duty is to preside over the Legislature, they were mostly limited to ribbon-cuttings and ceremonial pomp until former Democratic Gov. Ben Nelson gave his former Lt. Govs. Maxine Moul, and later Kim Robak, larger roles in the state's No. 2 executive post.

The job's responsibilities also escalated when Republican Gov. Mike Johanns took office in 1999. Johanns made Dave Maurstad and then Heineman integral parts of his administration, giving them key assignments and boosting their visibility.

But Meister's choice for a running mate likely isn't going to make much of a difference in the race, Comer said.

"What's going to succeed is what Meister can do. Can he raise some doubts about Heineman? Does he come across as someone who can do the job?" Comer said. "But even then, we all know it's an uphill struggle. Defeating an incumbent governor ... in what is ostensibly - at least nationwide -- a Republican year. It's just a tall order."

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