Democrat leads in Nebraska's `Camelot' race for US Senate. Conservative state responds to Kerrey's charisma

When Democratic Senate candidate Robert Kerrey talked about hope and the future, this rural Nebraska audience gave him a standing ovation. ``Somewhat short on substance,'' summed up Bob Mayer, a Republican agribusinessman in the audience. But ``it got people pumped up.'' A few minutes later, he bought an autographed picture of the Democratic candidate.

Nebraska is indeed pumped up about its US Senate race this year. Nationally, a win by Mr. Kerrey could well ensure Democratic control of the Senate for the rest of the '80s. Here in Nebraska, the race has heated up with an engaging contrast of campaign styles.

In one corner is the charismatic Kerrey: former Nebraska governor, a Vietnam war hero, and subject of national attention for his relationship, now ended, with actress Debra Winger.

In the other corner is Republican Sen. David Karnes, appointed 18 months ago to finish out the term of the late Sen. Edward Zorinsky. Young and affable, Senator Karnes has taken positions that reflect the state's conservative bent. But he trails badly in published polls.

Interviews with dozens of Nebraska voters suggest a similar trend. Kerrey is winning Nebraska on charisma rather than issues.

``Kerrey is Kerrey: young, good-looking, knows Hollywood stars, sort of a free spirit,'' says Bob Miewald, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska.

``The man has just an unbelievable following,'' adds Harvey Schwartz, who heads the state Republican Party.

Crowds gather around Kerrey effortlessly. Aides sometimes skip malls to avoid attracting too much attention and delaying the schedule.

Although Nebraska is a Republican state, Kerrey has earned wide name recognition and good marks because of his term as governor, when he guided the state through tough financial times, says David Campbell, spokesman for the state Democratic Party. In 1986 Kerrey declined to run for reelection.

His opponent, meanwhile, is struggling to connect with voters.

``Karnes leaves me cold,'' says Harley Stigge, a Republican retiree in Fremont. ``He didn't pay his dues.''

Karnes was little known last year when Gov. Kay Orr appointed him to the US Senate. He had been the governor's campaign chairman the year before and several prominent Republican officials were angered by the selection, state Sen. Wylie Remmers says.

Since then, Karnes and his wife, Liz, have campaigned endlessly. But a recent Omaha World-Herald poll gave Kerrey a 55-to-34 margin.

The Karnes campaign has tried to paint Kerrey as a liberal and pointed out issues where the former governor has switched positions. But Kerrey is concentrating on themes rather than specifics.

At an editorial board meeting with the Fremont Tribune, for example, Kerrey talks knowledgeably about the current farm program. ``There's been a lot of things that work in that '85 farm bill,'' he says. The farm recovery is fragile and needs additional support, he adds. But he is decidedly vague about how he would change the program. When pressed on the issue back in his campaign plane, Kerrey laughs. Since circumstances change, he says, the specifics of his program would change. Thus his campaign's goal is to get voters to trust him to do the right thing at the right time, he adds.

Karnes scoffs at the approach, calling it a Camelot with no road map. ``He's saying: I want to go to the shining city on the hill. But [he has] no idea at all how to get there,'' Karnes says.

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