MARGERY A. BECK
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - After an improbable Nebraska primary victory, state Sen. Deb Fischer has emerged from relative obscurity to take the mantle as one of the GOP's best hopes for picking up a U.S. Senate seat - though she'll have to beat a famous Democratic politician to do it - popular former Sen. Bob Kerrey.
On the presidential front, Republican Mitt Romney continued to pile up the delegates he will need to claim the GOP nomination, but he has already moved into general election mode against President Barack Obama. Romney inched closer to his all-but-certain nomination with wins in two more states.
Romney won at least 16 of the 25 delegates at stake in Oregon, with six delegates undecided as the vote count dragged into Wednesday morning. Romney has a total of 989 convention delegates. It takes 1,144 delegates to win the GOP nomination.
Nebraska Republicans also picked Romney although no delegates would be allotted in a vote that amounts to a beauty contest. The state's 32 delegates to the Republican National Convention later this year will be determined at the state convention on July 14.
Romney began the day 171 delegates short of the 1,144 needed for the nomination and was on pace to get them before the month ended.
In Nebraska, Republicans know they need to find someone to go toe-to-toe with Kerrey in the fall and could have opted for one of two statewide office holders - Attorney General Jon Bruning or Treasurer Don Stenberg, both of whom were better funded and better known than Fischer.
Instead, they chose Fischer, a ranch owner who was elected to the Legislature in 2004 and whose major push didn't come until days before Tuesday's primary. That's when she landed the endorsement of 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and 2012 presidential candidate Herman Cain and received a $200,000 ad blitz from a super PAC bankrolled by TD Ameritrade founder and Chicago Cubs co-owner Joe Ricketts.
"As recently as a week ago, Deb Fischer was dismissed by the establishment. Why?" Palin wrote on her Facebook page Tuesday night. "Because she is not part of the good old boys' permanent political class. The message from the people of Nebraska is simple and powerful: America is looking for real change in Washington, and commonsense conservatives like Deb Fischer represent that change."
In Nebraska, the contrast couldn't be more vivid in the November race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson. It pits Kerrey, who is unabashedly comfortable moving in Washington circles, against Fischer, whose only experience in elected office prior to the Legislature was serving on her local school board in one of the most rural regions in the country.
"It's a big race," Fischer told The Associated Press Tuesday. "It's the focus of the entire nation."
Fischer grew up in Lincoln and earned a bachelor's degree in education. When she married her husband, Bruce, nearly 40 years ago, she helped run the family ranch near Valentine, Neb., and spent her time as a mother to three boys and a volunteer for local schools and the Cherry County hospital.
As a state senator, Fischer garnered a reputation as a tenacious lawmaker, skilled at amassing support for her bills.
Fischer's rural roots and Washington naiveté may play well in Nebraska, which has a history of electing political newcomers, as Kerrey's own resume proves. His first run for public office was for governor in 1982. He won that race, unseating Republican Gov. Charles Thone.
Kerrey easily won the Democratic nomination Tuesday against three lesser-known candidates. In an interview, he highlighted his previous experience as a U.S. senator and governor, and pledged to work with Republicans if elected. He said he didn't think Fischer's win changed the dynamics of the election because all the GOP candidates struck identical positions on most issues.
"I'm not going to present myself as the winner. I'm not going to present myself as superior," Kerrey told the AP. "If the voters decide they want me, they'll get six years of hard work."
Republicans need a net gain nationally of four seats to win Senate control, and Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson's decision to retire in Nebraska left the GOP nearly certain of a pickup until Kerrey entered the race. However, Republicans remain confident they can beat the former Nebraska senator, governor and 1992 presidential candidate who served as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and won the Medal of Honor.
In the presidential race, likely GOP nominee Romney spent his day in Iowa, a competitive general election battleground, criticizing Obama on voters' top concern, the economy.
"This is not solely a Democrat or a Republican problem," Romney said in Des Moines in a clear pitch to independent voters who will decide the election. "The issue isn't who deserves the most blame, it's who is going to do what it takes to put out the fire."
The White House promptly dismissed Romney's critique.
Press secretary Jay Carney blamed federal overspending primarily on Romney-backed tax cuts for the wealthy that were enacted during President George W. Bush's administration and on the pricey wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.