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As the heat rises in the Nebraska U.S. Senate campaign, the race has tightened. Democrat Bob Kerrey is now within striking distance of upsetting Republican Deb Fischer, according to The World-Herald Poll.
Kerrey trailed Fischer by only 3 percentage points in a statewide survey of 800 registered voters.
He has closed the gap considerably from five weeks ago, when he was behind by 10 points among registered voters in a World-Herald Poll.
In fact, Kerrey has made up even more ground among people who say they plan to vote.
In the September poll, Kerrey trailed Fischer among likely voters by 16 percentage points. As of last week, Kerrey was behind by 3 points: 49 percent for Fischer; 46 percent for Kerrey.
The poll was conducted Oct. 23-25 by Wiese Research Associates of Omaha. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
About 7 percent of registered voters remain undecided.
The latest poll comes as Kerrey has aggressively tried to undercut Fischer's lead by questioning her character in a series of television ads in which he and campaign surrogates criticized Fischer for suing her elderly ranch neighbors over a property dispute in 1995.
The negative onslaught has clearly worked, especially among independent voters.
In the wake of Kerrey's criticism of Fischer, the Republican's unfavorable rating has risen by double digits — with 33 percent of Nebraskans now having an unfavorable view of the Valentine rancher and state lawmaker. Five weeks ago, only 21 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Fischer.
Meanwhile, Kerrey's unfavorable rating among voters remained the same: 38 percent in September, 39 percent in October.
Kerrey is a former governor and U.S. senator who returned to the state last spring to mount a bid for his old seat. He was viewed as the Democrat with the best chance to win.
Fischer was a relative newcomer on the statewide scene, surging in the final weeks of a competitive GOP primary to upset then-front-runner Attorney General Jon Bruning.
For most of the race, Fischer has held double-digit leads in a series of polls and has run a classic front-runner campaign — trying to throw as few bombs, and make as little news, as possible. Her strongest criticism against Kerrey — so far — is that he returned to Nebraska from New York City with a liberal viewpoint.
Meanwhile, Kerrey has run a traditional challenger's campaign, trying to lure Fischer repeatedly into debating the issues in public.
He has tried to paint himself as an independent voice who will work with both Republicans and Democrats. He has frequently criticized Democratic President Barack Obama. Earlier this month, Kerrey said he had “significant disagreements” with the president, including Obama's release of details about the secret mission that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Kerrey's attempt to distance himself from Obama appears to be working.
In the September poll, Kerrey and Obama each trailed his respective Republican opponent by about 10 percentage points. This time around, Kerrey narrowed the gap with Fischer, while Republican Mitt Romney widened his lead over Obama to 14 percentage points.
In recent weeks, both campaigns and third-party groups sent signals the race was beginning to tighten. Most notably, there has been an uptick in third-party groups coming back into the state, weighing in on the Senate race with television ad buys.
Former Omaha entrepreneur Joe Ricketts has poured about $420,000 into the race in anti-Kerrey advertisements. In addition, in the past couple of months, a Democratic group known as Majority PAC gave $460,000 to a pro-Kerrey Super PAC.
As the race tightens, Nebraskans can expect the campaign to take a more negative turn — especially if it draws national attention.
Earlier in the campaign, it was expected that Nebraska would be at the center of the national stage as Democrats and Republicans vied to take control of the U.S. Senate.
But as Kerrey faltered early and his chances dimmed, the national parties turned most of their interest, and spent their cash, elsewhere in more competitive states such as North Dakota and Virginia.
In The World-Herald Poll, Kerrey's numbers have risen in all three of the state's congressional districts and among men and women.
But his biggest gain was with voters who identify themselves as independents. In September, Kerrey held only a 6 percentage point lead among independent voters. As of last week, Kerrey held a 24-point lead among independents.
Fischer continues to dominate western Nebraska, where she enjoys the support of 57 percent of registered voters in the 3rd Congressional District. Her support there dropped only slightly from September, when she had 60 percent among registered voters.
Kerrey also has managed to narrow the gender gap, although Fischer still remains strongest with male voters. In September, Fischer had a 20 percentage point lead among men. That has now dropped to 14 points.
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