Gov. Dave Heineman fields calls almost every day asking who is his favorite in a five-way Republican primary for governor. So far, the governor says he's not making any endorsements, though he left open the possibility he could play a kingmaker role in the future.
A top Democrat in the state also gets daily questions about the race.
Vince Powers, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, says his callers want to know which of the two Democrats running would be the more likely to defeat a Republican.
Electability will play a key role in the Democratic primary duel between State Sen. Annette Dubas and Chuck Hassebrook, a longtime member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.
“Democrats want to win, period. There may be differences in policies, but at least the majority of Democrats I speak with say we have to win,” Powers said.
Six men and one woman are vying to be governor. So far, no clear-cut front-runner has emerged on either side.
Heineman is watching the race closely. He said he wants someone who can build on his accomplishments and who has a “vision” to move Nebraska forward.
He left open the door for eventually endorsing one of the five Republicans. Heineman had groomed Rick Sheehy to be his successor, but that ended when Sheehy resigned as lieutenant governor amid questions about late-night calls on a state-issued cellphone to several women who were not his wife.
“Every day, people call me and say 'Governor, who are you going to vote for in the race?' And today when they ask me, I say 'I'm going to watch these campaigns over the next several months and I'm going to make a decision at a later date whether I want to endorse and who I want to endorse,' ” Heineman said.
It would be unusual for Heineman to endorse in a GOP primary. In the past he has always stayed on the sidelines. But this appears to be different, as the race will determine who may or may not carry the Heineman torch forward.
U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., is also watching the GOP field closely. The former U.S. agriculture secretary and Nebraska governor said he has no plans to throw his considerable political weight behind any candidate.
He said there are no clear favorites, saying each candidate has his own strengths and weaknesses.
“I could make an argument that there are two or three of them (front-runners). But in the end, they all start pretty even,” Johanns said.
So who are the seven candidates, and what are their challenges and assets?
After talking with Johanns and more than a half-dozen Republican and Democratic observers, here's a breakdown of the field.
Hassebrook has strong ties in the Democratic community, having worked for years on behalf of family farmers and rural communities as head of the Center for Rural Affairs.
He has a proven track record of winning in a conservative district, representing northeast Nebraska for 18 years on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.
He has access to some money. Some of the biggest donors in Democratic circles are on his team. Susan Buffett and Dick Holland have agreed to be co-chairwoman and co-chairman of his campaign.
His hurdles? Hassebrook has to overcome the perception that he may be too liberal for parts of Nebraska. Hassebrook supports abortion rights and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Dubas also comes from a rural background. She farmed and ranched with her husband near Fullerton. Her rural roots may help her in the state's conservative western congressional district.
She has political experience, having served seven years in the Nebraska Legislature, where she battled the original route for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
An opponent of abortion rights, Dubas may have an easier time than Hassebrook winning over the state's abortion opponents. Democrat Bob Kerrey is the last Nebraska governor who supported abortion rights.
Dubas also has been building bridges with key Democrats. Former Lt. Gov. Kim Robak recently agreed to host a meet-and-greet for Dubas.
However, Dubas starts with little name recognition. Her challenge is introducing herself to Nebraskans.
McCoy is the youngest in the race and a virtual unknown on the statewide stage. However, he is active in Republican circles.
McCoy has already gotten one huge break. A Falls City businessman who gave up his own bid for governor is backing McCoy with money. In a stunning move, Chuck Herbster donated $860,000 in cash and campaign resources to McCoy's fledgling campaign.
That money will go a long way in helping McCoy introduce himself to Nebraskans.
However, money can go only so far. McCoy, 32, will have to convince voters he has the maturity and experience to be governor.
He also will have to defend his decision to carry one of Heineman's most unpopular legislative efforts. McCoy introduced Heineman's controversial tax reform package earlier this year that would have, among other changes, eliminated some sales tax exemptions for farmers and ranchers.
Ricketts has the potential to be a player. He has some obstacles, notably the baggage he acquired in his 2006 U.S. Senate race, when he lost decisively to then-U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson. In that race, 64 percent of voters opposed Ricketts.
His job will be convincing some of those same voters to give him a second chance.
Ricketts is not without assets. He can argue that he has experience in both the private sector and politics. He is a former executive at TD Ameritrade, a company founded by his father.
He is the only candidate who has run a statewide campaign for Senate or governor. After his bruising contest against Nelson, Ricketts is probably the only one in the field who understands what he has signed on for.
“I think there is some opportunity here for Pete, again, to introduce himself to Nebraskans,” Johanns said.
A social conservative and former state lawmaker, Foley led the fight in the Legislature to restrict or curtail access to abortions, as well as to oppose marriage equality.
Those fights have earned Foley his share of dedicated followers. Foley is going to need them to work the telephones and knock on doors on behalf of his campaign.
He has executive experience. As state auditor, Foley has played a tough watchdog role in the State Capitol, issuing reports critical of state agencies in how they handle tax dollars.
However, those fights have earned him powerful enemies. It's no secret that he and Heineman have tangled repeatedly over some of Foley's audits.
Foley's challenges will arise on two fronts. He has to raise enough money to compete with candidates such as McCoy and Ricketts.
And he has to find the time to campaign. Currently, Foley has no plans to give up his full-time state auditor job.
“He's definitely a factor in the race. He can legitimately make a claim that he has important state government experience,” Johanns said.
Janssen has been in the race the longest and has been on the campaign trail, working the chicken-dinner circuit and parade route.
His biggest asset may be his high-profile role on illegal immigration. Janssen has been one of the staunchest advocates of cracking down on illegal immigrants in Nebraska. He also has been portraying himself as a staunch gun-rights advocate.
A big question for Janssen is whether he can be seen as more than a one-issue candidate, and also whether he can raise the money. Right now he is a dark horse. But in a five-way primary, he could be a player.
Carlson probably has the biggest uphill battle of the five Republican candidates, but he too cannot be counted out.
He is a widely respected state senator who, by most accounts, is well-liked. He comes from western Nebraska, where he worked for many years as a financial adviser and served on the local school board.
Carlson is running a small, grass-roots campaign. He and his wife are driving around the state, trying to visit as many counties as possible with a trailer emblazoned with Carlson's name.
Big questions for Carlson are organization and money. Can he raise the dollars necessary to fund a statewide race, hire campaign staffers and pay for television advertisements?