VALENTINE, Neb. — The bulls arrived Saturday morning — prize-winning breeding stock that easily and sleepily took their positions in pens assembled along Main Street.
Soon the politicians came, drawn by the promise of a crowd attracted to a cowboy-centric festival known in Valentine as the Bull Bash.
Nine of the 10 Republican candidates for governor or the U.S. Senate made the weekend trek to this bustling cattle town, where they were sized up by potential voters in much the same way as the black Anguses and red Herefords on display in the pens.
They started to arrive Friday, attending a charity ball for heart research for women, where they were urged — unsuccessfully — by an auctioneer to bid on salt-block art. That's art created after cattle lick salt blocks.
“Where are those politicians?” said the auctioneer, peering at the crowd. “There's quite a few of them here.”
On Saturday, the politicians took to the streets, chatting up whomever would stop and engage.
U.S. Senate candidate Sid Dinsdale “talked cattle” with rancher after rancher, while governor candidate Bryan Slone of Omaha frequently reminded people he was the only candidate in the field who grew up in western Nebraska: in Gordon and Gering.
In Nebraska, television advertising is important, but retail politics is still a must — especially in the rural communities where going eyeball-to-eyeball with a voter can give a candidate an edge.
“If I meet somebody, I'm more likely to read about them and where they stand,” said Ginny Lee, a Valentine rancher who attended the Go Red for Women fundraiser.
However, like many Republicans in Valentine, Lee said, she had not made up her mind on any candidate in this year's crowded primary fields: six are running for governor and four are running for U.S. Senate.
More than a dozen voters interviewed in Valentine this weekend said they were still trying to figure out who the candidates are and where they stand.
“Can you keep track of all of them?” said rancher John Ravenscroft. “No? Well, I can't either.”
It's no accident that all of the GOP candidates except U.S. Senate candidate Shane Osborn — who had a previous engagement — attended the Bull Bash.
Attorney General Jon Bruning, who entered the race for governor only a week ago but is considered a front-runner, was the last to arrive, flying in on Saturday afternoon.
For Republicans, the western congressional district known as “The Third” is a powerhouse in primary elections. It's a region rich with GOP voters who often determine who wins or loses in statewide races because of the large number of Republicans who vote in the district.
Nearly 39 percent of all the GOP votes cast in the 2012 U.S. Senate primary came from the 3rd Congressional District. To put it another way, 21,000 more Republicans cast a ballot in the 3rd District than did in the Omaha-based 2nd District.
“In order to win a Republican primary, you have to win the 3rd. It's the historical pathway to victory,” said Mark Fahleson, former chairman of the State Republican Party.
The attention lavished on the 3rd District in this year's GOP primary election is not always welcomed. Several people in Valentine said they have been inundated with automated telephone calls from candidates.
Di Whitney said the calls have been especially annoying this past week, as they have interrupted her Olympics television viewing.
“I had three calls in one evening from the same candidate. And I thought 'Don't you have anyone else on your list?' ” Whitney said.
One of the advantages to the Bull Bash, an annual event, is that it gives candidates a ready audience. They can wander the streets, stopping voters and chatting.
By contrast, if a candidate holds an event, it doesn't guarantee that people will attend.
Republican Ben Sasse, running for U.S. Senate, noted that he and two other candidates attended a recent Chamber of Commerce event in Wayne, to which only about 10 people came.
“Ten people and three candidates,” chuckled Sasse, who arrived in Valentine on Friday with his wife and three children.
This year, few of the candidates at the Bull Bash tried to emulate the Western wear of the locals. There were no cowboy hats and few cowboy boots.
“I am what I am. These are my hunting boots,” said Slone. “I grew up down the highway, and one thing people don't like is when people dress up to come out here.”
State Auditor Mike Foley, running for governor, wore tennis shoes, while State Sen. Tom Carlson, also running for governor, wore loafers.
Pete Ricketts, another governor candidate, was one of the few who wore cowboy boots. But they were clearly old, scuffed and worn.
“They're probably older than my relationship with him,” laughed Susanne Ricketts, the candidate's wife of 16 years.