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Los Angeles Times

Political Winds Shift on Nebraska Prairie

Noam N. Levey

MCCOOK, NEB. - In early February, the war in Iraq came home to this small railroad town on the Nebraska prairie where farms begin to give way to high plains.Seven thousand miles away on a Baghdad street, a bomb exploded beside Army Sgt. Randy J. Matheny's armored vehicle, killing the 20-year-old McCook High School graduate and stunning his small hometown. 0416 04

"It caused us all to reexamine what we were thinking," said Walt Sehnert, who has run a popular bakery on McCook's main street since 1957. "Those of us who were adamant about the war had to stand back and take a deep breath."

Across Nebraska, there has been a lot of reexamination lately.

Although politicians here still score points by poking fun at vegetarians, this deep red state, which has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only once since Franklin D. Roosevelt, finds itself playing a central role in the congressional war debate.

Nebraska's two U.S. senators cast the critical votes last month to pass a bill that would force President Bush to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

And one - Republican Chuck Hagel - has become one of the war's most fiery critics. Hagel, who was an infantryman in Vietnam, recently suggested Bush could be impeached for defying the will of the American people.

"It's an odd position for Nebraska," said former GOP congressman John Y. McCollister, who represented the state in the early 1970s and gave Hagel his start in politics as an aide. "I thought most Nebraskans believed that when a country goes to war, that war should be supported and if there are really serious differences, they should be discussed privately."

Even now, anxiety about the war is expressed more often with subdued frustration than strident opposition in Nebraska, whose population is less than half that of Los Angeles.

And peace activists in the state capital of Lincoln still draw only a few hundred people to their demonstrations.

But the votes by Hagel and Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson seem to resonate in a state of tightknit communities where a soldier's death is felt personally and where a tradition of prairie populism still rewards politicians who speak their minds.

"You know, there isn't much here," said McCook Mayor Dennis G. Berry, who is also the principal of the town's junior high school and one of its elementary schools. "We don't have mountains. We don't have beaches. There are no professional sports teams. It's 110 in the summer and below freezing in the winter. But we have each other.... And in a small town, a death impacts everyone.

"Nebraskans like to win, whether it's on the football field or the battlefield," he explained. "But there's this feeling of where is this going, and will this ever end?"

Clustered around a main street that rises gently up a hill away from the railroad depot and a cluster of grain elevators, McCook is like hundreds of small towns eking out an existence on the Great Plains.

But if the grand marquee outside the Fox movie theater and the elegant civic buildings bespeak a time when the town heralded its status as the midpoint on the rail line between Omaha and Denver, McCook still proudly clings to its heritage as a cradle of Nebraska's maverick politics.

A century ago, a young progressive judge in McCook was elected to Congress and became a Nebraska folk hero for taking on his party and some of the nation's most powerful companies.

Like Nebraska's other famous rebel, William Jennings Bryan, Sen. George W. Norris opposed U.S. involvement in the First World War, complaining that big business was stampeding the nation into the conflict.

Then, at the height of the Great Depression, Norris, a Republican, campaigned vigorously for Roosevelt and championed government-subsidized projects to bring electricity to rural America, most famously through the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Today, Norris' modest 1886 home, complete with an unsmoked cigar in his study, is lovingly preserved on McCook's Norris Avenue, just a few blocks uphill from Sehnert's bakery.

And Norris' successors lay claim to his dissident legacy.

Nelson, who also grew up in McCook and served two terms as a popular governor, has consistently bucked his party over such issues as abortion, taxes and immigration, amassing one of the most conservative voting records of any Senate Democrat.

Hagel, once a fairly reliable Republican vote, has become an even bigger irritant to his party than Nelson is to his. Two weeks ago, he was one of only two GOP senators who voted with Democrats in support of an emergency war funding bill that would require the president to begin bringing troops home within four months.

On the day of the vote, the two senators, whose frosty relationship has endured since Hagel defeated Nelson in the 1996 Senate race, collaborated on an op-ed in the Omaha World-Herald that called the bill "a desperately needed adjustment" to U.S. policy in Iraq.

Hagel has faced particularly intense wrath from GOP loyalists in the state who have assailed him for breaking with the president. In a letter to the World-Herald, McCollister chided his onetime protege for making cause with lawmakers who have "a consuming, burning hatred of George W. Bush as their dominant legislative priority."

Nebraska's three GOP congressmen stuck with their party in opposing a Democratic House measure last month that set a deadline for withdrawing combat troops.

"I don't think we should tell the enemy what our plan is, and that's what I hear all across the district," freshman Rep. Adrian Smith told farmers and ranchers in McCook recently.

But Nelson and Hagel are speaking for a growing number of Nebraskans who are uneasy about the war.

"We don't see any end to it," said Gene Morris, who moved to McCook in 1961 and published the daily McCook Gazette for nearly two decades before retiring recently. "I think a lot of us think we're not doing what we're supposed to be doing."

Over a ground beef and sauerkraut sandwich popularized by German immigrants more than a century ago, Sehnert said he worries there isn't a clear mission anymore.

"You can just feel the fatigue factor developing," said Nelson, who returned to his hometown in February for Matheny's funeral.

Even some Nebraskans dismayed about the prospect of a withdrawal seem to respect their senators' willingness to challenge what the Bush administration is doing in Iraq.

"I'm glad someone is pushing back," said Tanner Kirchner, an army reservist from the western Nebraska town of Ogallala who served two tours in Iraq in 2003 and 2006. Kirchner said he fears that America will pull out of Iraq before the job is finished.

Unease over the war has deepened in Nebraska as it has nationwide, said Barry Rubin, the former executive director of the state Democratic Party, which has polled extensively on the war.

But worries have also intensified as the war touches an increasing number of communities across the sparsely populated state.

Approximately 95% of Nebraska's Army National Guard soldiers have served in Iraq over the last four years, including 800 who are deployed there now, said Guard Capt. Kevin Hynes.

At least 36 service members from Nebraska have died in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001, according to the Department of Defense.

In McCook, Matheny's death two months ago jarred a community where the exploits of the McCook High School Bisons are normally the big news.

Day after day, the McCook Gazette filled with tributes to the young man, whose brother and sister also serve in the military.

When Matheny's body came home, hundreds packed the civic auditorium for the memorial service.

Administrators at the public schools scrambled to find substitutes for the many teachers who went to Matheny's memorial, Berry said.

More than 100 miles away at the University of Nebraska in Kearney, political science professor Peter J. Longo said two of his students from McCook asked for time off to go home.

"That sense of community is very important for Nebraskans," said Longo, a Nebraska native.

"There is some serious mourning and grieving that goes on every time a Nebraskan is killed in the war.... I think that has really tugged on both senators."

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times

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