GRAND ISLAND - With wife and son in tow, U.S. Senate candidate Bob Kerrey jokingly asked a Grand Island audience of media and campaign supporters Sunday if his family looked like "carpetbaggers."
The question brought some laughter, but when asked about his residency plans in the state should he lose in the Nov. 6 race against Republican Seante candidate, State Sen. Deb Fischer, Kerrey said he didn't know. It would depend on future opportunities.
"I have businesses here. I have family here," Kerrey said. "My businesses aren't going to move."
Kerrey said questions about his moving back to the state earlier this year, after 12 years in New York, and entering the U.S. Senate race is just a "sideshow" that has no merit.
"The accusation that I'm a carpetbagger is not helpful for the state," he said. "We won 73-7 (Saturday) in Lincoln, Nebraska, and my guess is a fair number of those players are not from Nebraska and we don't call them carpetbaggers," he said to a roomful of applause.
"We don't say to somebody who's looking to move here, "How long are you going to stay? Are you going to stay here one year, five years? Are you committed to be a Nebraskan?'" Kerrey said. "It's baloney."
Kerrey said his good friend Pete Peterson, a native of Kearney, has lived in New York for 50 years, but still considers himself a Nebraskan and would take exception to anyone who said he isn't.
"Nobody said that Johnny Carson wasn't a Nebraskan. Nobody said that Dick Cavett isn't a Nebraskan. Nobody accused Marlon Brando or Henry Fonda, after they left and found opportunity someplace else, of not being a Nebraskan," Kerrey said to more applause.
"I really don't know how much more you can do it. I was born here, went to school here, volunteered for the Navy here, came back, started a business here. I still have over 700 employees," Kerrey said. "I don't know what the test is, but I think I've passed it."
A Kerrey campaigner said she was happy to hear him address the "carpetbagger" issue because it's the leading question she gets when going door-to-door to talk with Nebraska voters.
A poll conducted for the Omaha World-Herald showed that Kerrey was trailing Fischer by 10 percentage points in a statewide survey of 800 voters. That gap spread by 16 percentage points in a survey of likely voters. Fischer had 56 percent of the vote to Kerrey's 40 percent, according to the poll results.
Kerrey said Sunday the spread was 28 percent just a few weeks ago, so the change means his campaign is gaining momentum.
"Whoever it is that is saying I'm a carpetbagger still has to decide "who do you think is going to be more effective," Kerrey said. "Do you think my experience in the military, as a businessman, governor, senator is going to be more effective "yes or no."
Kerrey said there's some fundamental differences between he and Fischer, particularly when it comes to a balanced budget.
"It needs to be balanced, but there's a right and wrong way," Kerrey said Sunday.
He favors tailored cuts and some new revenue in a phased balancing process as compared to Fischer's endorsement of the Nordquist plan that is focused on what Kerrey calls drastic and destructive cuts, including those to Social Security and Medicare, that would hurt many Nebraskans.
He wants to change Washington to move toward more bipartisan efforts to get things done with the budget, taxes and immigration.
That's in sharp contrast to the stalemates and inactivity of the last week.
"No budget, no appropriations, no Farm Bill, no jobs bill for veterans," Kerrey said as his voice grew louder and louder until 11-year-old son, Henry, ran to the back of the room to wave his dad down.
Kerrey stopped in mid-sentence.
"Quit being angry?" Kerrey asked Henry.
"Yeah," the boy said running behind his father and back to his seat at the side of the lectern.
"My son, he's my angry meter," Kerrey quipped. "Calm down."
"It's a lot of things they should have gotten done," Kerrey said of Congress.