On a late morning this week at the VFW Post in Plattsmouth, Neb., about three dozen people gathered for a town hall meeting with Republican Jeff Fortenberry.
The four-term congressman, now 51, grew up in Louisiana and worked in publishing in Lincoln before joining the city council. He won election to Congress in 2004, and is now seeking his fifth term.
After leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, Fortenberry chatted briefly about the Lancaster County Fair and the Olympics. Then he launched into a 15-minute slide show, complete with bar graphs and pie charts, on the federal budget.
When he opened it up for questions, people asked mostly about economic issues, like the national debt, Medicare and taxes.
This was a congressional event, not a campaign appearance. And the four-term Republican congressman struck a note that varies from many in his party.
"It's a very complex tax code," he said. "It tends to weight heavier the income derived from the work of your own two hands, the work of your intellect, versus the work of capital that sits out there. It skews to the ultra-wealthy and ultra-wealthy corporations. It has created an offshore aristocracy."
In a later interview, Fortenberry suggested tax reforms including closing loopholes and deductions, giving as a possible example eliminating the mortgage interest deduction on second homes. But he insisted such moves would have to be combined with an "ironclad guarantee" that any additional revenues would go to debt reduction.
In his law office 50 miles west in Lincoln, Fortenberry's Democratic opponent, Korey Reiman, a 39-year old who grew up on a farm in Pawnee County, emphasized different issues.
"I decided to file because over the last eight years I haven't been happy with the representation that we've received in Nebraska," he said. "We have one of the most socially conservative representatives in the House of Representatives."
Reiman does talk about the economy, pointing to the rise in the national debt since Fortenberry took office, and advocating higher tax rates for upper-income earners. But he's targeting Fortenberry's efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, along with the congressman's opposition to embryonic stem cell research and gay marriage.
"Mr. Fortenberry, with all due respect, has a very difficult time separating his religion from his politics. I am different than that. As Nebraska's representative, I would represent all religions, not just one single religion," Reiman said. "I think that is probably the biggest difference between he and I, because his ideology drives every vote, it appears, and he's unable to separate those two."
Reiman is Methodist; Fortenberry is Catholic. Fortenberry said he doesn't know why Reiman wants to base his campaign on a negative commentary about him. And he criticized Reiman's view on the separation of religion from politics.
"The strength of the nation depends on the strength of family and community," he said. "You cannot have an operative environment for values and culture be completely distinct from your public policies. It's dualism, it's impossible - it's irrational, as well."
Fortenberry said faith has an important role to play in addressing the nation's problems.
"The government can't fix everything. There is deep brokenness and woundedness in our culture," he said. "Ultimately, the formative institutions in life - whether that's family life, faith life, civic life, strong sense of business ethics, media that's guided not by just debased, prurient interest but guided by the truth - has to be truly part of the mix in order to bring about a truly just and good and worthy society."
How to relate to other countries is a major concern for Fortenberry, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He said tightening sanctions on Iran, with the help of the Europeans, is a positive step that he's been working on for some time.
"You have to do everything you can to potentially change the equation of decision-making by Iran before they head in the direction of nuclear weapons," he said. He recalled what he saw once from a plane at a German airport. "There goes Iran Air, as I'm looking out of the window. When I get into the airport, there's the Bank of Iran. Europeans for years would come over and talk about the nature of this problem, and I'd point out how they actively trade with them, and to cut it out."
When Reiman was asked about Iran, he declined to answer at first.
"I'm informed by the (Lincoln) Journal Star and the New York Times," he said. "And for me to come out and give a foreign policy view is disingenuous to me. I would hope Mr. Fortenberry knows a lot more about the subject than myself when I'm informing myself by newspapers."
Later, though, Reiman said the Obama administration is doing a good job. And he added a personal note.
"I can tell you this. My father lost a leg in Vietnam, and I watched him hobble around his entire life," he said. "We should not use force unless it's required, especially our troops. War is the last option. Every day I saw the impact of that as my father put on his wooden leg. And that would drive my foreign policy."
The candidates' campaigns are hardly evenly matched when it comes to money. The most recent Federal Election Commission reports show Fortenberry had just under $736,000 cash on hand as of June 30, compared to just over $4,000 for his challenger. (Fortenberry's FEC report; Reiman's FEC report)
Reiman is philosophical about the gap.
"Everybody says it's about the money. If that's true, I'll lose," he said. "But I guess I can't really get too concerned about that. I gotta just keep doing what I can do and give it my best shot."
Fortenberry said that in an ideal world, candidates would make stump speeches and the community would choose between them. But in today's politics, with the opportunity for their records to be distorted, he said politicians from the presidential level on down have to be ready to respond.
"By the end of October, people will be so sick of the ads and will complain to me vigorously about it," he said.
"I don't know if I should give the advice 'Just turn it off,' but that is always an option for people," he added with a chuckle.