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Nebraska Governor’s Race Tightens

May 8, 1998

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ Rep. Jon Christensen was seen as a shoo-in when he announced he was running for governor last fall. And why not?

Thirty-five years old, Republican, a through-and-through family-values conservative in a conservative state, engaged to a former Miss America (a virgin who ``has saved herself for marriage,″ the congressman tells us).

And yet, as Tuesday’s primary approaches, Christensen’s sure thing looks more like a gamble.

He has found himself in a tight race for the GOP nomination with state Auditor John Breslow and Lincoln Mayor Mike Johanns. All eight of Nebraska’s daily newspapers that made endorsements have picked Johanns.

A member of the 1994 Republican Revolution that gave the GOP a majority in Congress, Christensen unseated three-term Democrat Peter Hoagland by less than 1 percent in one of the most bitterly fought races in the nation. He breezed to a second term in 1996 and is one of the youngest members ever to sit on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

All three leading GOP candidates tout themselves as fiscal conservatives who want to cut taxes and shrink government. They all opppose abortion, support the death penalty and want to build more prisons.

Christensen, though, a fundamentalist Christian and one of the most conservative members of Congress, has embraced _ no, bear-hugged _ the family values agenda of the GOP class of 1994.

When Breslow began airing a TV commercial condemning same-sex marriages, Christensen went even further by declaring: ``If I knew someone was a homosexual, I would not be appointing somebody to a position of leadership. I believe it’s important that that person model who I am as a person.″

Christensen’s divorce in 1996 apparently has not turned off his pro-family supporters. When the marriage ended, he filed an affidavit from his ex-wife saying she had been unfaithful. More recently, he volunteered this about his fiancee, Tara Holland: ``She is a very disciplined woman who has saved herself for marriage.″

The comment drew little reaction beyond a columnist who said it sounded ``backwoods.″ Christensen’s opponents have not made an issue of it.

A poll released Thursday, commissioned by two Nebraska television stations, found 33 percent of registered Republicans surveyed earlier this week supported Christensen, 32 percent for Johanns, 20 percent for Breslow and 15 percent undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.

``Compared to the other two, Christensen may come across as being limited perhaps both in experience _ he is fairly young _ and in the range of issues he has dealt with,″ said John Vermeer, a political science professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln.

James Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said Johanns also has done an effective job of separating himself from the others by refusing to run a negative campaign.

``People are turned off by negative campaigns and Johanns has kept away from that,″ Johnson said.

Breslow, for example, has been running an animated commercial that depicts Johanns’ and Christensen’s heads on the sides of two peas. The announcer says: ``Johanns and Christensen, two peas in a pod. If they’re elected governor _ we’re cooked.″

For his part, Christensen said that his campaign is limited because of his work back in Washington. He has spent three of the past nine weeks working out of state.

``I’ve been through difficult elections before,″ he said. ``I think this one is looking real good.″

Whoever wins the GOP nomination will face a tough race in November.

In the four-way contest for the Democratic nomination, the leader is Bill Hoppner, who fell just 42 votes short of winning the nomination for governor in 1990. Hoppner, the former chief of staff for Sens. Bob Kerrey and Jim Exon, had to wait through two recounts before learning weeks later that he had lost.

Hoppner’s main opponent this time is lawyer and former state legislator Jim McFarland, who has one big advantage in being a former football player in this football-crazy state. McFarland was an All-American at Nebraska and played for the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Dolphins in the early 1970s.

Democratic Gov. Ben Nelson is barred by law from seeking a third term.

Breslow, head of a big chain of welding-supply stores, has shattered state primary records by spending $3 million _ more than Johanns and Christensen combined have spent.

``All I am doing is putting my money where my mouth is,″ he said.

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