Courtesy Lee Terry for Congress
In a mailer sent out by Republican Lee Terry's campaign in Omaha, an Obama voter urges her fellow Nebraskans to split their tickets and vote for Terry.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 11/2/2008 2:47:24 PM ET 2008-11-02T19:47:24

It’s 10 o’clock the Saturday morning before Election Day. At the Obama field office in a strip mall in Omaha, Neb., Obama regional field director Charlie Ellsworth is teaching 16 Obama supporters how to do door-to-door canvassing.

“Don’t get involved in long policy discussions,” he advises them. Just make the pitch for Obama and move on to the next house.

He reminds them of the importance of telling voters they can vote early, by going on Monday to the Douglas County election office here in Omaha.

Inside the Obama office, a dozen workers are making phone calls to voters. They’re all here in Omaha, not the usual quadrennial battleground of a presidential election, thanks to a decision made in 1991 by Ben Nelson, then the governor of Nebraska, now the state’s Democratic senator.

Nelson signed into law an electoral vote-splitting bill, which means that if Obama wins a plurality of the votes in the Omaha-based Second Congressional District, he will get one of the state’s five electoral votes.

Forty-eight states use a winner-take-all system under which the popular vote winner in a state gets all of its electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska use a district-based system.

If one electoral vote decided the presidency
If the national electoral vote tally is close, then the one electoral vote in Omaha would loom large.

But with Obama apparently ahead in competitive states such as Virginia, the presidency may not hinge on Omaha’s vote.

What will matter is the Obama effect on Rep. Lee Terry, the five-term Republican congressman from Omaha.

In registration, his district is 41 percent Republican, 39 percent Democratic and 20 percent independent.

Terry won re-election in 2006 with 55 percent of the vote over Democratic challenger Jim Esch.

Knowing that a formidable Obama field effort will boost Esch, Terry has been preparing for months, saying back in May , “We’ve thought long and hard about the effect of Obama in this race on voter turnout.”

Democrat Jim Esch
And Terry is appealing to Obama voters to support him. In a mailing Terry sent to voters, an Omaha coffee shop barista named Melanie Wilhelm says she’ll vote for Obama and Terry — because Terry gives straight answers to her questions.

If Obama is the next president and if Terry wins re-election, then Terry said he’d “try to find the areas we can actually work with — whether that’s small overlapping on your Venn diagram, or large, that’s where I’ll work.”

As Terry is reaching across party lines so, too, is Esch.

The Democrat was out early Saturday at Louie M’s diner in Omaha, making small talk with the 8 o’clock breakfast crowd.

Kevin Brown, who owns a bookbinding business in Omaha, but lives across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa, looked up from his breakfast and told Esch, “In your last election cycle, it came off that you were pretty darned conservative as far as a Democrat goes. This election it doesn’t seem that way.”

“Well, when you’ve got a million dollars in negative advertising against you, they can say whatever they want,” Esch told Brown.

National parties make huge investments
The national parties are big players in the Terry-Esch battle.

Slideshow: Final push In the past week alone, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other outside groups have spent about $350,000 in ads attacking Terry and boosting Esch, while the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and its allies have invested nearly $400,000 against Esch and for Terry.

At Louie M’s diner, Esch assured Brown, “I haven’t changed much since the last election. In fact, I’d say some of my views have probably gotten more conservative.”

He told them, “I’ll vote with my party when I think they’re right and when they’re wrong, I won’t. I think more than anything we need people who are going to start working together again,” Esch said. “We have too much partisanship.”

He added, “that’s what drew me to Obama: the talk of uniting the country. I don’t necessarily agree with him on every issue, but (there’s) the realization that we’ve got to come together.”

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It’s a pitch identical to the one made by Esch’s fellow Democrat, El Tinklenberg, who is running against Republican incumbent Michele Bachmann in Minnesota’s 6th congressional district. The Democrats claim that they would bring nonpartisan cooperation and an end to polarization.

How Pelosi runs the House
But this appeal is at odds with the way Speaker Nancy Pelosi runs the House of Representatives. Pelosi often denies the Republican minority any role in writing bills.

Important legislation is tightly controlled with no GOP amendments allowed and little or no notice given to Republicans before a 400-page bill is dumped in their laps. With in all likelihood an expanded majority in January, Pelosi will have even less need to reach out to Republicans.

Esch’s response: If Democratic leaders “keep going down that path, they’re going to see control change hands again…. I don’t think they can keep going down that same path, I don’t see how that’s going to improve things. That is exactly what people got tired of under Republican leadership.”

Walking up 24th Street in a hardscrabble Omaha neighborhood, knocking on doors, Esch came across real estate investor Mel Evans who was coming out of a house he owns.

Evans told Esch that he won’t be able to vote, since he’s off to a Caribbean vacation. But he said he found the anti-Esch campaign “nasty.”

“I saw a card that came in the mail the other day and it showed two men getting married,” Evans said, adding sarcastically, “Oh, my God.”

He said, “They were basically evoking the image that this man (Esch) has no morals and Nebraska standards are different.”

That mail piece, which came from the NRCC, not from the Terry campaign, features an image of two men in tuxedos and the cover line, “Gay marriage… For liberal Jim Esch, it’s just a ‘decoy issue.’”

Esch opposes the constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. “I think that’s a states’ right issue; I don’t think the federal government has any business talking about marriage,” he said.

“I can’t control what they do,” said Terry’s campaign manager Dave Boomer, who was exasperated at the NRCC mailing. “This is a moderate district; this isn’t Texas.”

Pro-life Democrats a key constituency
Another social issue, abortion, may prove to be decisive. Boomer said, “If we keep Democratic pro-life voters, we win.”

Terry has a 100 percent rating from the leading anti-abortion group National Right to Life Committee and is endorsed by the group.

Terry is hammering Esch who said, “I would consider myself a pro-life candidate.”

Terry’s campaign mailers criticize Esch for telling an Omaha newspaper, “I think the Right to Life side is little more extremist” than he is. 

Jim Rogers, Esch's campaign manager said, “The bottom line is simple: Jim Esch is pro-life and Lee Terry is desperate to save his political career.”

Obama co-sponsored the Freedom of Choice Act which some lawyers say would invalidate state abortion restrictions such as parental consent laws and.

Esch said he “probably would” vote against the Freedom of Choice Act.

But Terry’s main criticism of Esch is that “he’s held no office; he’s been in no job position where he’s even supervised one person, let alone having to make major decisions. He lives off a family trust and kind of just hangs out and travels the world.”

Esch said, “In the almost three years I was at the Omaha Chamber of commerce, we raised $15 million for economic development initiatives…. I did more in that time in the small role I played than Terry did in the ten years (in Congress) to create any job here. If you’re a ten-year incumbent in Congress, you have a lot of explaining to do about where the country is at.”

Terry counters that the $15 million was raised by a local retired businessman named Dick Jefferies and that Esch’s job was simply as an assistant.

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