Dem Scott Kleeb tries a New West formula

SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. — Standing in a field of yellow flowers near Scotts Bluff National Monument, Democrat Scott Kleeb suggests that the seeds planted in this small field are the future of America’s energy policy.

In a voice both calm and intense, Kleeb criticizes the 2004 energy bill, suggesting that the $22 million allocated to alternative fuel research is the federal government’s equivalent of 22 cents. The brown mustard and canola seeds in this field, he says, could be harnessed as a source of clean-burning fuel.

He is running for Congress in Nebraska’s conservative 3rd District, which Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), the former University of Nebraska Huskers football coach, has represented since 2000. Osborne decided to resign to run for governor, but Gov. Dave Heineman walloped him in last month’s GOP primary.

Kleeb, making three stops on this brilliant, sunny day in a district that runs from the east of the state to Nebraska’s western panhandle, is hoping that a new type of Democrat can win in the Great Plains and Mountain West. He has a doctorate from Yale but is outfitted in jeans, cowboy boots and a brown sport jacket. He is 30 years old and presents himself as intuitively understanding red-state conservatives and independent voters.

Besides Kleeb, several independent-minded, well-funded Democratic candidates in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico and Arizona are running with what former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) called a “New West” strategy.

As Republicans have solidified their grip on a large swath of the South, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and congressional leaders are split between trying to establish a presence in red states or focusing their energy on defeating vulnerable, centrist Republicans in states along the Ohio River — Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania — and in upstate New York and Connecticut.

The DNC has sent three field workers to Nebraska to organize and turn out Democratic voters in November, but the House and Senate Democratic Party fundraising arms regard such work as a waste of money.

Still, Nebraska Democrats are excited about Kleeb, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is keeping a close eye on his race.

“His campaign has all the makings of what could be success,” DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) said, adding that if Kleeb continues to raise money and show progress in internal polls the committee might send money his way.

Despite his natural gifts as a campaigner, Kleeb remains the underdog in a district that President Bush won with 74.8 percent of the vote.

If the Democratic congressional leaders want to compete in the Plains and Mountain West they will have to tolerate some dissent. Western Democrats play by different rules than their coastal counterparts, who can hammer their opponents and attack Bush.

“What works in New Jersey won’t work out here,” Kleeb said. “And what works here won’t work out east.”

Keenly aware that he will need Republican votes to win, Kleeb plays down his party affiliation and does not mention either Bush or the GOP-controlled Congress. He also mentions his opponent, Republican state Sen. Adrian Smith, only twice. The conservative Club for Growth helped Smith win a three way GOP primary, which Kleeb refers to indirectly by suggesting that a University of Nebraska research facility is “our club for growth.”

Kerrey, who held a fundraiser for Kleeb in Omaha on Thursday and campaigned with him Friday, touts Kleeb’s values and style rather than his policy views.

“Washington, D.C., is not just about party politics,” Kerrey says to supporters in Kearney, emphasizing that Kleeb is suited to walk into a contentious environment and forge consensus and that members of Congress will like and trust him.

After establishing credibility with voters, especially with centrist and business-oriented Republicans, Kleeb would need a signature issue to define himself as a leader and distinguish himself from Smith, Kerrey says. The former senator suggests Kleeb hold a summit on water rights where the congressional delegations from Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado could hammer out an agreement to resolve their long-standing conflict over the issue.

At a fundraiser in Kearney on Friday evening, Kleeb jokes, “I’m a Democrat and a bull rider. Which is it harder to be in the 3rd District?” The question is rhetorical, but Kearney adds, “Three-dollar fuel does not care what party you’re from. Your doctor does not check your party affiliation. The schools don’t care.”

Kleeb explains that he is running to rejuvenate small-town values where people go to a high school football game even if they’re not parents.

His message, in short, is, “I’m one of you.”

He has had some success attracting Republican voters; he says he will announce a team of Republicans supporting his campaign in the next few weeks.

At a fundraiser at El Charrito, a Mexican restaurant in Scottsbluff, John Harms, a Republican candidate for the state’s unicameral Legislature, says, “He can tell a story that can be understood in a heartbeat. It can be done.”

“Scott has a personality that can build consensus,” former GOP state legislator David Bernard Stevens says after a press conference at the North Platte Regional Airport. “He’s not full of himself, and he’s not one of those people unwilling to take risks.”

But Nadine Hengen, a teacher at the North Platte Community College, says after hearing him speak that it is unlikely she will vote for Kleeb.

“He does not have enough experience,” she says, holding firm to her view even after Kerrey comes over to say hello. “He has a lot of promise, a lot of potential. But not now.”