OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — More than a decade after he left this heartland state for New York City, former Sen. Bob Kerrey is considering an improbable comeback run for his old Senate seat, a prospect even he rates as a longshot.
"I would say if you bet ... you'd have to bet against me," Kerrey told The Associated Press this week. "I've been away 11 years. I'm a Democrat. Obama's going to top the ticket, and he's probably going to be unpopular. So I'd say the odds are probably not good."
Since the Senate was founded, only 22 senators have been re-elected to the chamber after a two-term or more gap, according to research by Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota, who runs the web site Smart Politics. An even smaller sliver of those, Ostermeier said, have occurred in the "modern era" of political campaigns.
Kerrey, now 68, is not the boyish figure who was elected governor in 1982 and grabbed headlines for briefly dating actress Debra Winger. But Kerrey, Democrats and Republicans seem to agree, is Nebraska Democrats' only hope of holding onto the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Ben Nelson, the man who replaced Kerrey when he retired.
How the Nebraska Senate race unfolds is pivotal for both parties: Republicans need to net four seats in the 2012 election to take back the Senate. If Kerrey doesn't make the race, Republicans are extremely confident they'll have one of the four seats they need.
Former state GOP chairman David Kramer concedes Kerrey is an "instantaneously credible" candidate. Kramer said he is skeptical, though, that Kerrey will be prepared for the rigors of a campaign.
Kerrey is currently on a five-to-six-day visit to his home state, which he says he'll use to determine whether to launch a campaign. He wants to decide quickly, he said, so he can clear the path for any other hopefuls who would otherwise stay out.
Though skeptics — not least of which include Kerrey himself — abound, there's recent precedent for a comeback.
Former GOP Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana ran in 2010 after more than a decade out of office and cruised to victory. Former White House spokesman Pete Seat, who worked on Coats' campaign, said candidates who reengage in politics after a long layoff take a while to "get their sea legs back." But he said natural politicians remain natural politicians.
"In many respects it's like riding a bike," Seat said. "It just takes a little bit of time to get back in the game."
Of course, unlike Coats, Kerrey is running in a state that's drifted ideologically away from him since he left. Kerrey's work history could also pose a problem: He left the Senate to become president of the New School, a self-described progressive university in Greenwich Village. While there, he thought about running again for the Senate in Nebraska and passed — then considered a bid for mayor of New York City.
Kerrey did stay involved with government, working as a member of the 9/11 Commission, but Republicans are sure to highlight what he's been doing the last 10 years.
Kerrey's brushed off the prospect of a brutal campaign with trademark humor, though, alluding to his service as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam.
"It's not live rounds," Kerrey said. "It's not like Aaron Burr is challenging me to a duel."