OMAHA, Neb. — Democrats might yet have a lifeline in their quest to hold on to Nebraska's open U.S. Senate seat this year, and once again it's former Sen. Bob Kerrey giving them hope.
The popular two-term U.S. senator and former governor demurred on a comeback run just weeks ago. But Paul Johnson, a former campaign manager and confidant, said Kerrey called him Monday morning and told him he was taking another look and will announce a decision this week.
Should Kerrey decide to get in this time, it could instantly revive a Senate race Democrats and Republicans alike seemed ready to declare dead.
"Sen. Kerrey jumping in is a game changer," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist. "It means Nebraska is very much in play. It means real money will need to be spent in a state that Republicans were already counting on and it means the odds have increased for the Democrats to hold the Senate."
Senate Democrats are desperate for a candidate who could win because their margin for error in 2012 is next to nothing. Democrats are defending 23 Senate seats, including six open seats and one held by an independent, to the GOP's 10. Republicans need a net of four seats to take back the Senate.
Johnson said Kerrey hasn't made a final decision on a run yet and called reports he had "not true." But, he said, with Nebraska's filing deadline Thursday, Kerrey could announce a decision as soon as Wednesday.
Among national Democrats there was a growing sense of optimism that Kerrey would decide to pursue the seat, which is open because Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson is retiring.
"He is going to be — as Richard Nixon once said — tanned, rested and ready," said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist and Nebraska native.
McMahon said that if Kerrey were on the ballot, it would not only help the Democrats' prospects of holding on to the Senate but would boost President Barack Obama's hopes of winning Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District and its one electoral vote. Kerrey is expected to perform well in the Omaha-based district, which Obama won in 2008.
Kerrey's run could cause problems in his own party locally. University of Nebraska regent Chuck Hassebrook gave up the chance to run for another term in the regent's seat he's held since 1994 to try to give Democrats a prominent name at the top of ballot in November. Hassebrook said Monday he doesn't think Kerrey will run.
But Hassebrook lacks Kerrey's star power. A candidate for president in 1992, Kerrey is a national figure who Democrats believe would have no problem raising all the money he needs for the race.
What's more, Kerrey would inherit Nelson's campaign team and, presumably, much of the nearly $3 million Nelson had amassed.
Republicans did not wait for an official announcement. By Monday afternoon, the National Republican Senatorial Committee had put out a statement bashing Kerrey as "a tax-and-spend liberal" and suggesting his re-emergence stems from "backroom deal-making" between Kerrey and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Republicans have a crowded primary field that includes state Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, state Sen. Deb Fischer and investment adviser Pat Flynn. A fifth candidate, Steven Zimmerman, has filed for candidacy but has raised no money since joining the race last year.
Jackson contributed to this report from Washington.