OMAHA - Two weeks before the May 15 primary, Nebraska's three major Republican U.S. Senate candidates used a televised debate Tuesday to emphasize their consistent conservatism and steadfast opposition to liberal policies.
The GOP hopefuls -- Attorney General Jon Bruning, State Treasurer Don Stenberg and State Sen. Deb Fischer -- vowed to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law, end regulations and limit the federal government's role.
During Tuesday's hourlong debate, organized by The World-Herald and aired by Nebraska public television, the Republican candidates differed little on most issues.
But they sparred briefly about each other's potential weaknesses as the GOP nominee who will likely face former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey in the general election.
In response to a question about such weaknesses, Stenberg was quick to attack Bruning on issues that Stenberg has raised in the campaign and that Democrats would surely use in the fall campaign.
"He's become wealthy while serving as our attorney general," Stenberg said.
He also accused Bruning of having a conflict of interest because of his investments in the banking industry, and questioned Bruning's co-ownership of a lake house with two top Nelnet executives. The house was purchased about a year after Bruning tried to help Nelnet avoid a $1 million settlement over the student loan company's business practices.
"I think we'll hear a lot about that from the Kerrey campaign, or at least the Democrats," Stenberg said.
Bruning did not directly respond to the substance of Stenberg's remarks, although in the past he has said he did nothing wrong in his investments or the house purchase.
Tuesday, however, Bruning criticized Stenberg for raising the issues in the debate and said Nebraskans have rejected Stenberg in three previous Senate bids because of such tactics.
"This is typical in a Don Stenberg campaign," Bruning said. "I mean, there's a reason that Don has lost three times. This kind of mud-throwing doesn't work."
Stenberg replied that he was simply answering a question about Bruning's potential vulnerability -- a topic that has been covered by The World-Herald and other news organizations.
"It's not mudslinging to look at the records of the candidates," he said. "That's not mudslinging. That's a political debate."
As for Fischer's weakness, Stenberg suggested that Democrats might seize on her lack of statewide campaign experience and try to trip her up.
Replied Fischer: "I would say it's a plus that I haven't been running for statewide office forever."
For his part, Bruning took issue with Stenberg's substantial campaign support from a group controlled by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. He said South Carolina already has two senators and doesn't need a third.
"You elect me, I'll be my own man," Bruning said.
Meanwhile, Fischer said she has had a more successful record in the Nebraska Legislature than Bruning, who served as a state senator before becoming attorney general. As a result, she said, she is best prepared to do the job in Washington.
"That's what the U.S. Senate is -- it's a legislature," she said. "It's a body that passes laws. It's a body where you have to work with other people."
Overall, however, the three Republicans found much more to agree on in their opposition to an intrusive federal government, and each said they would be able to present a clear contrast to Kerrey.
Fischer said the federal government could help create jobs by limiting spending, reducing regulations, reforming the tax code, scrapping the estate tax and repealing the health care law.
"Government has a role, but it's a limited role," she said.
Stenberg agreed. He also mentioned a cut in the corporate tax rate and increased domestic energy production.
More often than not, Stenberg said, the federal government is an obstacle to job creation and a foe of individual liberty.
"Our country's going in the wrong direction because the people in Washington have forgotten the values that make America great: the values of freedom and family and faith," he said.
Bruning cited his efforts to roll back federal regulations by challenging them in court. He said he has fought the Obama administration "every step of the way."
"What it really comes down to is getting the government out of the way," he said.
The three Republicans, however, did see a valuable federal role in supporting agriculture, which is vital to Nebraska's economy. They said they would support -- or at least consider -- some limits on direct federal farm subsidies, but they said there's a need for a "safety net" for the agricultural economy, which can be buffeted by weather and global market factors.
For example, they said, federal help with crop insurance is a priority.
In response to a question about excessive partisanship in Washington, D.C., Fischer said she has a track record of building consensus in order to get things done in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature.
"We have big challenges before us and I want to help solve those challenges that are facing this country," she said.
Stenberg said he could work with Democratic lawmakers who agreed with him on his conservative issues, but he was unwilling to find common ground if it meant compromising those principles.
"The important thing is to get the right policies," Stenberg said.
Bruning took a similar position. He noted that he was chosen by a bipartisan group of state attorneys general to head their national group, but he used that position to challenge Obama's health care legislation.
All three Republicans struggled to identify a single Democratic senator they could work with in Washington. Finally, Bruning volunteered that he could agree with Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in his support for Israel. Lieberman, formerly a Democrat, now is an independent, although he often votes with Democratic senators. He is leaving the Senate after this year.