ELMWOOD, Neb. — Compared with the acrimonious primary campaigns elsewhere, the race for the GOP Senate nomination in Nebraska sounds like two nice guys running for local Rotary Club president.
"We owe a debt of gratitude to all of you who have worn the uniform," candidate Ben Sasse said during a recent debate, motioning to Shane Osborn, a Navy veteran best known as the pilot of an American spy plane forced down by the Chinese military in 2001 and its crew held for 12 days.
Minutes later, Osborn pledged "to support whoever wins" the four-way primary on May 13. But make no mistake, Nebraska is a new front in the bitter national struggle inside the Republican Party between established leaders determined to maintain control and right-wing insurgents trying to change the party's direction.
Behind the public geniality, party powerbrokers including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies have quietly backed Osborn and steering the majority leader's donors his way. Tea party groups are endorsing Sasse.
For Osborn, the extra help resulted in at least $73,000 in contributions last year from political action committees that regularly give to McConnell, including heavyweight UPS, according to Federal Election Commission records. And in January, a former McConnell chief of staff held a fundraiser for Osborn in Washington, D.C.
Sasse, the president of Midland University in Fremont, has received several times that amount from a group trying to unseat McConnell, plus support from some prominent tea-party figures.
The heavy outside influence is a change from previous elections, when party leaders largely left the choice to voters. But the ugly jousting between the factions in Congress and the party's losses in 2012 ended that practice.
The party's fault lines are evident here.
"You can't just talk solutions. You've got to have experience," said Omaha Republican J.R. Jasso, a fan of Osborn's term as state treasurer.
"I'm sick of Washington walking all over us," Lincoln-area GOP activist Carol Pitts said the next day at a Sasse campaign meeting in tiny Elmwood.
Races for Republican Senate nominations have become increasingly nasty in other states where veteran GOP senators are spending heavily to fight off primary challenges from the right by tea party-backed conservatives.
But ugly doesn't play well with the many Nebraska voters who come from rural farm towns, where incivility is a no-no.
"Nebraska is very friendly, love-your-neighbor state," said Andy Clements, Cass County Republican vice chairman and a banker in Elmwood, population 634. "Voters like it when candidates are civil during election seasons."
Osborn acknowledged pulling a punch during the debate, in part because "Nebraskans don't like that."
He and Sasse have emerged as the favorites with less than six weeks until the primary. The vote will make the winner the prohibitive favorite to be the next senator from GOP-heavy Nebraska. The seat is being vacated by retiring Republican Mike Johanns.
In the coming weeks, Nebraska's race "is going to get hot," as Osborn put it. But it's unlikely the tone will deteriorate as quickly or deeply as in other states, where candidates have been airing television attack ads for weeks. In Nebraska, the ads so far have been positive, or have aimed their critique at Congress in general.
In Kentucky, McConnell claims in TV ads that his GOP challenger, Matt Bevin, lied about where he attended college and accused him of profiting from the 2008 Wall Street bailout.
In Kansas, Sen. Pat Roberts criticized his opponent for posting gruesome images on Facebook of gunshot victims' X-rays. The images, and blithe commentary about them, were "inappropriate," Roberts said.
Milton Wolf struck back, attacking the three-term senator's votes to increase the debt limit and to confirm former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of health and human services. Sebelius has been the target of intense criticism after the flawed rollout of the health care law.
Until recently, Nebraska has been somewhat immune to the party's internal war. But this year, GOP leaders in Washington and mainstream Republican groups are determined to push back against tea-party candidates, who have often been more prone to making big gaffes and collapsing on Election Day. Traditional Republicans also want to cultivate candidates who will work with them in Congress.
Since Nebraska's race has no incumbent, it offers an attractive battleground for the establishment and the anti-Washington camps.
Sasse invited the fight with McConnell by posting a YouTube video last fall, urging "every Republican in Washington, starting with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to show some actual leadership." He didn't stop there. In a five-minute bio video, Sasse castigates the GOP "establishment" five times.
"They just don't worry about the nation's decline the way we do," he said.
McConnell and Sasse had a tense meeting in the leader's office last fall after the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is opposing McConnell in Kentucky, endorsed Sasse. Since then, Sasse has declined to say whether he would support McConnell for Senate leader should he win.
"I don't see either political party willing to tell enough truth," Sasse said in an Associated Press interview after a campaign luncheon in Elmwood last month.
The Senate Conservatives Fund's endorsement helped Sasse get "the ball rolling," said the group's director, Matt Hoskins.
Endorsements followed from prominent tea party-backed Republicans, such as Sen. Mike Lee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and fiscal hawks that included Sen. Tom Coburn and Rep. Paul Ryan.
Hoskins' group has also been a key fundraiser for Sasse, forwarding $248,000 from individuals to Sasse's campaign and putting up more than $200,000 of its own money. Hoskins' goal is to amass a total of $750,000 before the primary.
Sasse is no gaffe-prone hayseed. The 42-year-old Harvard and Yale graduate is part professor, part boy next door, pivoting effortlessly from discussing Israel as a model for border security to reminiscing about his childhood in Fremont. With wispy hair and a toothy grin, he projects youthfulness, especially when accompanied by his wife and three young children.
Nor is Sasse a pure outsider: He was undersecretary of health and human services during the Bush administration.
Likewise, Osborn is no heir to the GOP establishment. The son of a single mother, the 39-year-old graduated from the University of Nebraska on an ROTC scholarship.
His affable nature, military discipline and past success on a statewide ballot made him the early choice of influential Republicans, including McConnell. It also helped that the group out to get McConnell was supporting Sasse.