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Tea party endorses Bruning for US Senate in Neb.

Henry C. Jackson And Margery A. Beck

The Tea Party Express on Wednesday endorsed Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska, the group's first 2012 endorsement. The prominent conservatives' endorsement comes more than a year before Nebraskans vote in what is shaping up to be a crowded GOP primary to unseat Democrat Ben Nelson.

Bruning accepted the group's endorsement in Washington on Wednesday, saying the Tea Party Express's backing will give him a boost with their message of fiscal discipline.

"Nebraskans get that, and I think they'll be proud of this endorsement," Bruning said.

The Tea Party Express is wading into Nebraska early because the group wants to focus national attention on Nelson, one of the Senate's most conservative Democrats, said Sal Russo, the group's chief strategist and a financial backer of the Tea Party movement..

Nelson is considered vulnerable in large part because of the key role he played in the passage of President Barack Obama's health care reform legislation. Republicans have accused Nelson of attempting to extract a favor for his vote, the so-called Cornhusker Kickback. The proposal, which was removed before final passage, would have provided Nebraska with federal funding to expand Medicaid that other states did not receive.

"Clearly this is a national race," Russo said. "(Nelson's) vote swapping affected the entire country ... so we're here in Washington to put the focus on it on a national level."

Nelson, a former two-term governor, hasn't formally announced he'll seek a third term. But he has hired a campaign manager and raised more than $1 million in the first quarter of 2011.

His campaign released a statement Wednesday saying they welcomed Bruning's newest backers. Bruning and the Tea Party Express are "like two peas in a pod. They deserve each other," said Paul Johnson, Nelson's campaign manager.

"Both the Tea Party Express and Mr. Bruning want to cut Medicare, cut Social Security and return to the days when insurance companies could deny health coverage to children with pre-existing conditions," Johnson said.

Two other Republican candidates in the race _ State Treasurer Don Stenberg and investment adviser Pat Flynn _ have questioned the Tea Party Express' endorsement, saying the national group doesn't speak for dozens of local tea party organizations. At least 15 of those local organizations signed a letter Wednesday distancing their groups from the national endorsement.

"Tea Party Express is a national organization that most certainly does not speak for local conservative groups throughout our state," said Joanne Elliott, co-organizer of Conservative Connections in Lincoln. "Making an endorsement this early in this race without the input of Nebraska's tea party groups is disappointing."

The Associated Press