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Nati Harnik, Associated Press
Nebraska state Senator Deb Fischer applauds her supporters with her husband Bruce Fischer, left, at her election party in Lincoln, Neb., Tuesday, May 15, 2012. Fischer defeated state Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg in the republican primary election for the U.S. senate seat vacated by democrat Ben Nelson.

OMAHA, Neb. — Until a few months ago, most Nebraskans had never heard of Deb Fischer, a state legislator and rancher from Valentine who overcame two better-financed opponents to claim the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, pushing her into a high-stakes fall campaign against Democrat Bob Kerrey.

Friends and political strategists say Fischer's success is a combination of hard campaigning in some of Nebraska's most isolated hamlets, her appeal as a conservative rancher and a flood of outside money that paid for relentless television ads critical of Attorney General Jon Bruning, who had been considered the GOP front-runner.

Fischer had proclaimed herself the underdog, but neighbors and colleagues said they never counted her out in the race to see who would challenge Kerrey, the former occupant of the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson.

Rowdy Kluender, chairman of Valentine City Council, had known Fischer all his life. He said he knew she was capable of beating her better-known GOP competitors, Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg.

When Fischer announced her Senate campaign less than a year ago at an Omaha steakhouse, only a few dozen people showed up — mostly reporters or family members of Fischer and her campaign aides. But her star power was heightened in the subsequent months, and Kluender said last week he watched a crowd gather around just to watch Fischer pump gas in Neligh in northern Nebraska.

"By the time we left, there were probably 20 or 30 people there listening to her," he said. "That's how she is. She's easy to talk to. She's good to get along with. She seems to have the interest of the taxpayers and community at heart."

Democratic Party donor Bud Pettigrew, who is also Fischer's neighbor in Valentine, said he doesn't like Fischer's politics, comparing her to outspoken conservative U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., but he said she is less prone to making controversial statements than the former presidential candidate.

"I don't like her ideas, but I'm not going to underestimate her," Pettigrew said. "She's extremely intelligent."

Fischer's colleagues in the Legislature describe her as a tough lawmaker and an unwavering advocate for her overwhelmingly rural district in north-central Nebraska.

Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood, a Republican who came into office the same year as Fischer, said he could tell Fischer was "tough as nails" when they met during an orientation for freshman lawmakers.

"It didn't take me very long to figure out she was in it to achieve great things," Flood said. "She does not back down. She does not squirm. She looks you straight in the eye to tell you what she's going to do, and she works with people to get it done."

He said Fischer developed the relationships required to pass bills in a Legislature that lacked official party leaders, often lining up more than a dozen people to testify for measures she supported. Other lawmakers good-humoredly dubbed those she recruited to speak at legislative committee hearings as "Fischer's army."

The tactic has worked. Last year, she hammered through a road project spending package that was unpopular with some members of her party who argued the money was better spent elsewhere.

Fischer credits her GOP win to a boots-on-the-ground campaign, in which she put 45,000 miles on her car traveling rural Nebraska.

"That's the kind of campaign you have to run in Nebraska," she said in the days leading up to the Tuesday primary. "You know, my legislative district is the size of New Jersey."

Still, small meetings and handshakes likely wouldn't have been enough if not for more than $1 million spent by outside groups on campaign ads, said University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Paul Landow, who called her come-from-behind win "amazing."

First there was a series of TV ads that favored Stenberg and slammed Bruning, then in the final weeks before the election, a super PAC bankrolled by TD Ameritrade founder and Chicago Cubs co-owner Joe Ricketts dropped more than $250,000 on an ad blitz that again criticized Bruning, this time supporting Fischer.

James Lawrence, 61, of Omaha, said he had planned to support Bruning in the GOP primary but decided to instead back Fischer because she seemed to stay positive in the campaign.

"I got a little tired of the negative ads, and I think she offers a refreshing approach," Lawrence said.

Jack Pfeifer of Omaha also took notice of Fischer when the ads began running and said her background in agriculture influenced his decision to vote for her.

"I grew up on a farm, and I guess that makes me feel like I can connect with her," Pfeifer said.

As a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Fischer had wanted to study political science, go on to law school and launch a career in politics. Instead, she married Bruce Fischer in 1972, moved to Valentine to help run the family ranch and raise three now-grown boys.

Fischer has played up her "ranch gal" persona throughout her campaign, but bristles at the suggestion that she's too much of a political novice to win in the fall.

"Some folks seem to think I came out of nowhere in this race," she said. "I have been a state senator for eight years. But more importantly than that, I've been involved in a number of organizations in the state for 30 years. I'm not an unknown."

Associated Press writer Grant Schulte reported from Lincoln.