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With so much uncertain in this election year, why on earth should we take a detour into a state that has voted for a Republican in every presidential contest but one since 1936, that gave George Bush his biggest margin in 1992, that has an all-GOP delegation to the House, that has been recording astonishing growth in its GOP ranks, has a Republican mayor in its biggest city, and in the last 50 years has voted more Republican than any other state?

The answer: Because Nebraska offers one way for Democrats to endure into the next century.

The man who is leading the way is E. Benjamin Nelson, an accidental politician who has been elected governor twice and is now bouncing around the state trying to win a Senate seat.

He's a Democrat who calls himself a "deficit hawk." His television ads talk about "runaway spending" and call for cutting spending "to the bone." His biggest failure as governor may have been when he and the Legislature parted ways on what to do with a state budget surplus. He wanted to return it to the taxpayers. The lawmakers wanted to spend it.

Hardly anyone in the Democratic Party is paying much mind right now to 55-year-old Ben Nelson, who, if elected, would have the biggest hair in Congress since Jack Kemp left the House. He keeps a low profile. He's not a stem-winder. He's not a risk-taker. He doesn't take fancy positions on big issues. He's not even the most glamorous politician in his own state. (Sen. Robert Kerrey, who persuaded him to run for the seat being vacated by Sen. J. James Exon, is the clear winner in the glamour sweepstakes.)

"There's a huge Republican base here, and yet Democrats can win," says Warren E. Buffett, the Omaha financier and political buff. "They have an unusual formula."

Nelson, a lawyer and onetime minor state functionary, has the formula down cold. The first element is to exploit a split in the Republican Party between religious conservatives and moderates. The second is to be a relentless moderate himself.

In truth, Exon paved the way and Kerrey added dash to it. And now Nelson is emerging as a seamless practitioner of the art. "When Clinton made the 'end-of-big-government' speech it was a big deal in Washington," says John Cavanaugh, a former Democratic congressman from Nebraska. "Nebraska Democrats have been making that argument for 20 years."

Even Nelson's language is different from that of national Democrats. They think of themselves as "Old Democrats" or as "New Democrats." Nelson calls himself a "21st-century Democrat." This is how he explains it:

"Government has a role -- and this is what distinguishes me from Old Democrats and from Republicans -- but it's not, with the exception of the military, as the senior partner. It stimulates growth at the local level. It's a junior partner. Old Democrats want the senior partner role. Republicans want no role."

Nelson's road to Washington isn't without obstacles, however. One is Chuck Hegel, an investment banker who is a moderate Republican but who still faces the challenge of getting religious conservatives to turn out. The other is Nelson's pledge two years ago to fill out his term as governor, which ends in 1998. He's got an answer to that, and though it's a dodge, it's worth listening to at a time when Americans are having the yeastiest debate over federalism since the time of the founders.

"As governor I felt initially like the branch manager of the federal government," Nelson was saying the other morning. "There was all this federal intrusion, unfunded mandates, and federalism seemed way out of balance. I've been trying to pull power back to the states. I think I can be of more service by pushing power out of Washington."

Let him finish: "Downsizing in Washington has to be true downsizing, not downloading onto the states. I worry that in the zeal to balance the budget, Congress will bust the state budgets. That's what I want to avoid."

Political scientists and folklorists have spent decades trying to understand why conservatism is sown so deeply into the alluvial soil and political soul of a state that was the home of William Jennings Bryan and George Norris. Maybe it's the independence of rural life. Maybe it's the exigencies of farm life.

Whatever it is, it's forced Democrats to be different. "Democrats have to act like, look like, think like, be like and sound like Republicans to survive in this state," says Omaha Mayor Hal Daub.

Maybe so. Maybe someone's been watching all along. Maybe it's Bill Clinton.

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