Democrat Scott Kleeb burst onto Nebraska's political scene two years ago, running for Congress as the cowboy scholar.
His admirers saw a charismatic candidate bringing something new to politics. They liked his vow to work across party lines, his soft-edged rhetoric and his thoughtful demeanor.
Kleeb, 32, attracted a loyal base of supporters as well as national attention for his energetic run in heavily Republican western Nebraska. His effort prompted a late campaign visit from President Bush to shore up Kleeb's GOP opponent, Adrian Smith.
In the end, the man with the boots, silver belt buckle and Stetson hat lost the election by 10 percentage points.
But the experience hasn't deterred Kleeb. Hoping to tap the more Democratic-friendly counties of eastern Nebraska, Kleeb is running statewide this year, seeking the U.S. Senate seat that Chuck Hagel is vacating.
Kleeb (pronounced Klebb) is running as a moderate, saying he would restore fiscal responsibility to Congress, explore ways to adopt universal health care and find diplomatic solutions to end U.S. involvement in Iraq. He vows to do it all in independent fashion.
"What people want more than anything else right now in their elected official is, one, the restoration of trust (in government) and someone who is willing to look at an idea — whether it's a Democratic, Republican or independent (one) — look at a good idea and be for a good idea," Kleeb said.
With an easy laugh and rugged good looks, Kleeb knows how to work a room. He loves to chat and rarely appears rushed, giving long answers to questions from prospective voters.
"When you're talking to him, he's not one to look over your shoulder to see who else is coming into the room," said Deb Quirk, a Democratic activist from Hastings.
Two years ago, Kleeb often appeared to lose track of time on the trail. He was usually running behind schedule.
He recently lost his driver's license after getting his sixth speeding ticket in two years. Kleeb, who took the wheel when headed to campaign events, got three of the tickets during his congressional run. He now gets around the state with a driver.
He said he regrets the speeding tickets and plans to hew closely to his schedule this year.
Kleeb's life story is unusual. He was born in Turkey to parents who taught in military schools abroad, and was raised in Italy. He speaks Italian fluently and is said to be a whiz with pasta.
He returned to the United States to study at the University of Colorado at Boulder and spent his summers on a cousin's ranch in Nebraska.
"He's really laid back and quiet," Fred Anderson, a professor of American history at Colorado, said of Kleeb. "When he said something, there was always thought behind it. He wasn't one of those students who just b.s. you to death."
Kleeb not only earned academic credentials at Boulder, graduating summa cum laude, he also earned cowboy points.
A member of the university's rodeo team, he rode about 50 bulls and managed, he said, one 8-second ride. Kleeb once got kicked severely enough that he roamed campus with his baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, covering a large bruise on his forehead.
After graduating, Kleeb went back to work on the McGinn Ranch in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. A year later, he was off to Yale University, where he stood out in his cowboy hat and boots.
He earned two master's degrees and a doctorate and was named one of the 50 most beautiful people on campus by the Yale tabloid Rumpus.
The magazine dubbed him the "paragon of prairie perfection: a horse-and-bull-riding, steak-eating, tobacco-spitting, Johnny Cash-listening, Paul Newman-watching, whiskey-and-black-coffee-drinking type of man."
Kleeb returned to Nebraska in 2005 and launched his bid against Smith. Since that campaign, he has taught history at Hastings College.
Now he is once again talking about the need for change in Washington, his admiration for the pioneers and his belief that, by working together, Nebraskans can make big changes.
His stump speeches are sweeping in nature. He often recites the nation's woes but gives short shrift to the solutions. He can appear uncomfortable with sensitive political issues.
A Catholic, Kleeb said in a recent interview that he believes every abortion is a "tragedy" and that as a senator he would work to reduce the procedure.
When asked whether he believes a woman should have the right to have an abortion, Kleeb responded: "Roe v. Wade is the law of the land." Asked if that ruling should be overturned, Kleeb said that's a "judicial decision."
On gay marriage or civil unions, Kleeb frames the hot-button issue in legal terms, saying he opposes a federal ban on gay marriage because he doesn't believe that the denial of rights should be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
When asked if he supports the concept of civil unions, Kleeb responded: "I support the concept and principle of fairness."