OMAHA, Neb. -- Democrats hoped Nebraska's Senate race would be the story of Bob Kerrey's political revival. Instead, the emergence of Republican Deb Fischer, a previously little-known state senator, has given Republicans their clearest shot at taking a U.S. Senate seat away from Democrats.
Fischer is the clear favorite, and Kerrey has taken on the scrappy tone of an underdog, insisting he may yet spring a surprise.
Polling and the checkbooks of both national parties indicate Fischer has a comfortable lead. After some initial interest in the summer, neither the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee nor the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has invested in the race down the stretch.
Fischer's ability thus far to fend off a challenge from Kerrey, who was lured by national Democrats out of retirement in New York City, where he was president of The New School university, has been a notable success in Republicans' push to take back the Senate.
It has also bucked a trend of Democratic over-performance in red states: GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is expected to win handily in Montana, Missouri, Indiana and Arizona, but the Senate race in each of those states is considered close or favors a Democrat.
Republicans need to net four seats to take control of the Senate next year if President Barack Obama is re-elected, three if Romney wins since the new GOP vice president would get a tie-breaking vote. Both parties now agree that the Nebraska Senate seat of retiring Democrat Ben Nelson looks like the GOP's surest pickup.
Kerrey, a former governor, senator and one-time presidential candidate, isn't giving up. He has continued to advertise heavily in the state, released a quirky video with comedian Steve Martin to support his campaign and portrayed Fischer as a rubber stamp for conservative Republicans.
"She's promised to be a reliable vote for the Republican caucus ... and I think it's likely that the problems that we have as a consequence of this hyper-partisanship will get greater," Kerrey said in an interview.
Kerrey has tried to reconnect with Nebraska voters but admits he has struggled with being labeled as a carpetbagger from New York in ads made by outside spending from groups like the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS.
"It's an obstacle that's been created by Rove and the Koch brothers," he said, referring to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch. "I look at it rather clinically. I think at the end of the day, when the election occurs, I don't think it's that big of an issue."
Kerrey supporter Susan Scarborough, of Grand Island, Neb., said Kerrey's long history with the state means she could never see him as anything other than a Nebraskan.
Scarborough says she is leaning toward voting for Romney on the presidential level but will cast her ballot in the Senate race for Kerrey. She said she has heard from others who will do the same.
The question is whether there are enough voters like Scarborough. Fischer, who is running her first statewide race, has presented herself as an unapologetic conservative and a fresh face for Nebraska voters.
"Nebraskans will know that they've elected someone with honesty and integrity," she said. "I will work hard for them. I've shown that as a state senator, I believe in traveling the state and listening to Nebraskans."
David Kramer, a former GOP state chairman and the party's Senate nominee in 2006, says the race has tightened since a recent Omaha World Herald poll showed Fischer with about a 10-point lead. He attributes that to Kerrey's feistiness and his track record with Nebraskans.
But he says that Fischer is closing out the race comfortably.