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Rick Sheehy

Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy sits at The Mill and enjoys a beverage while discussing his decision to run for governor in 2014 on July 19, 2011. (BRYNN ANDERSON/Lincoln Journal Star)

Road warrior Rick Sheehy is preparing to embark on his most challenging journey yet.

Sometime next year, probably in early summer after the 2013 Legislature adjourns, the lieutenant governor will gear up his 2014 gubernatorial campaign. The beginning stages already are taking shape.

Gov. Dave Heineman not only has endorsed Sheehy to be his successor, but recently, he made it clear he'll actively campaign for him. 

Dean Dennhardt, the governor's political fundraiser, already is aboard the Sheehy campaign train and will be finance director. Dennhardt brings precious cargo, a list of 6,000 contributors to Heineman's political campaigns and activities.

In a sense, if personal contact with voters in communities all across the state is a central pillar of a gubernatorial campaign, Sheehy's bid to succeed Heineman has been under way for a very long time.

If his nearly eight years as lieutenant governor were set to music, Willie Nelson would be the artist. "On the Road Again" is the defining theme.

Sheehy has driven, almost always alone, roughly 415,000 miles across the state, from border to border and corner to corner, filling a full schedule of speeches, appearances and community events as lieutenant governor.

First, behind the wheel of a Toyota Camry and, now, a Nissan Altima.

"A couple of times a year, I drive (the equivalent of) around the world in the state of Nebraska," Sheehy said.

That has brought Sheehy into direct contact with countless numbers of Nebraskans in virtually every community of size multiple times. Performing his duties, preparing the land.

"I keep lists," he said.

A look at the lieutenant governor's travel log is stunning: 411 trips to Omaha; 152 to Grand Island; 139 to Kearney; 39 to North Platte; 35 to Norfolk; 31 to Scottsbluff; trips into towns from Alda to Wellfleet.

Sheehy was appointed lieutenant governor by Heineman in 2005 after Heineman moved up from that post to succeed Mike Johanns, who resigned as governor to accept appointment as U.S. secretary of agriculture. Johanns and Sheehy were teamed together on the ballot in 2006 and 2010.

"I want to continue to build upon the foundation of the last eight years," Sheehy said.

"Exercise fiscal responsibility; grow the state through job creation and business development; recognize that education and jobs go together."

Sheehy said he'd also focus on agriculture and access to health care, especially in rural areas where older Nebraskans need to be able to receive assisted-living services so they can remain in their homes. 

"We need to increase, protect and grow our agricultural industry," Sheehy said, recognizing that by 2050, the world will have 2 billion more mouths to feed.

Sheehy is headed toward a showdown with Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood in the 2014 Republican primary election. Flood began traveling the state in the summer to prepare for his own gubernatorial bid.

Voters will see a big difference in executive branch experience, Sheehy said. In addition to his years as lieutenant governor, he says, he was mayor of Hastings for eight years. Before that, he was president of the city council.

There's also an incendiary legislative policy difference that Sheehy points to, a vote by Flood that Heineman previously has spotlighted. 

Flood's vote to override Heineman's veto of a controversial prenatal health care bill was a vote to "use tax dollars to benefit illegal immigrants," Sheehy said. 

"It's an issue I will continue to talk about. We should not use the tax dollars of hard-working Nebraskans to provide services to illegal immigrants." 

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The bill provided prenatal medical care for illegal immigrants along with other low-income women. 

Flood has said his vote was fundamentally pro-life, as well as an economically wise decision, because newborn babies with untreated health issues can have high-cost medical conditions that affect taxpayers. Those babies automatically become American citizens at birth.

Sheehy said he too is pro-life, but the issue is illegal immigration.

"This was a targeted piece of legislation," he said. "If it was strictly a pro-life issue, the bill could have been expanded to cover more women, (and) we should have provided for Nebraskans only."

Heineman knows well the political power of employing an issue of illegal immigration. In 2006, he pummeled Tom Osborne in the Republican gubernatorial primary election over a bill that provides resident college tuition rates for Nebraska residents who are the children of illegal immigrants. 

Sheehy said his eight years working side by side with Heineman have prepared him to be governor.

"It's been a great working relationship," he said. "We work every day as a team.

"I am pleased the governor is going to go out and campaign for me," Sheehy said. "But I have to go out and win this myself.

"You can buy all the media you want," Sheehy said. "But Nebraskans like that touch of the hand, that look in the eye."

And that's what he's been doing for eight years. 

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at 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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