Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer, a Republican, meets her rival for a U.S. Senate seat, Bob Kerrey at a 4th of July parade in Omaha. (Nati Harnik/AP)

His hair has gone snowy, but rancher Darcy Leistritz instantly recognized the man coming her way at a strip mall here in Nebraska’s western reaches.

“I wore one of your T-shirts when I was in college,” she told Bob Kerrey.

That would have been some time late in the last century, when Kerrey was acclaimed as one of the most dazzling politicians this state had ever produced.

He was a heartland heartthrob: a Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam; a self-made millionaire; a brainy governor whose approval rating topped 70 percent; a Democrat who won a landslide election to the Senate in a year when Michael Dukakis failed to get even 40 percent of Nebraska’s vote for president. Oh, and he dated one of the biggest movie stars of the day, Debra Winger.

Now, after living in New York City for more than 10 years, Kerrey has returned and is trying to win back his old Senate seat. But it has been nearly two decades since his name last appeared on the general-election ballot in Nebraska, and his past glories here are as faded as those old campaign T-shirts. Even Leistritz said she does not know whether she will vote for him.

At the moment, Kerrey is running well behind a state senator, Deb Fischer, who stunned the Nebraska political establishment by defeating two better-funded and better-known candidates in the Republican primary in May.

The Kerrey subplot is playing out in a race that has attracted a lot of attention because Nebraska represents one of the best chances the GOP has of picking up a Democratic seat in its quest for a majority in the Senate. Kerrey was supposed to diminish those chances.

There hasn’t been a reliable poll lately, but Fischer’s team said last month that their internal numbers have her up by 25 points. Kerrey campaign officials estimate the margin is in the low double-digits. The candidate himself said his gut tells him “the election today is probably 54-46, something like that.”

Kerrey, 68, conceded in an interview: “I’m not sure I can close the gap. What I’ve got to do is finish the campaign saying I’ve told Nebraskans what I think needs to be done, and most importantly for me, I’ve got to make an effort to conquer a perception that I’m doing this because [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid talked me into running. I love Harry. He could talk me into lots of things, but not into leaving private life and becoming a candidate.”

That Reid — along with the rest of the Democratic Party — was thrilled when Kerrey jumped into the race to replace retiring Sen. Ben Nelson (D) is beyond dispute. They knew that he was pretty much the only Democrat who could stir up a decent contest in this increasingly conservative state.

Kerrey had first announced that he would not run and then changed his mind just under the wire for the March filing deadline.

The Republican super PAC American Crossroads welcomed him home with more than $260,000 worth of scathing advertising, including a radio spot in which an announcer taunted: “You haven’t been here in a while, Bob. Living in New York for the last decade, right? I bet you’ve got some stories.”

Nebraskans had been startled — and, yes, a little hurt — when Kerrey walked away from his Senate seat in 2000, saying “my spiritual side needs to be filled back up.” That he would pick Manhattan as the place to replenish his soul made his decision all the more perplexing for people here.

Since then, Kerrey has married and had a son; done a stormy nine-year stint as president of the New School, a university in Greenwich Village; flirted with the idea of running for mayor of New York; and served as one of the more outspoken members of the 9/11 Commission.

Kerrey insisted that he is back in Nebraska to stay — and that he still feels at home here.

“The fundamentals of Nebraska are largely the same. The values are unchanged,” he said. “There’s some issues that have changed, but I don’t think the people themselves are different.”

He noted that he has continued to own businesses and pay taxes in the state, has bought a house in Omaha and plans to enroll his 10-year-old son in school there this fall.

“Don’t vote no on me because of these lies about me being a carpetbagger. There’s lots of reasons to vote against me, but this carpetbagger business is nonsense,” he told several dozen supporters at a pizza restaurant in Alliance.

Kerrey’s wife, former “Saturday Night Live” writer Sarah Paley, has not exactly helped put that perception to rest. In the July issue of Vogue, she wrote an essay describing Nebraskans as though they were an alien species to someone with New York sensibilities.

“The Midwest is a strange land for an Easterner of my ilk,” Paley wrote. “Midwesterners even have their own language. They say ‘pop’ for soda, ‘sack’ for bag, ‘billfold’ for wallet. They do not worry. They do not suffer from guilt.” In the accompanying photo, Paley posed in Manolo Blahnik stilettos and a Narciso Rodriguez sheath.

By way of reintroduction, Kerrey is traveling Nebraska in a King Air 90, a twin-engine turboprop, sometimes having to seek out voters two and three at a time. So sprawling is the state that when people out west speak of being on “eastern time,” they are referring to Omaha.

But at least some are willing to take Kerrey seriously when he says he intends to put down permanent roots. At the conclusion of a tour of the new veterans cemetery in Alliance, the manager handed him an application to be buried there with his wife.

Kerrey was taken aback. “It felt a little weird, actually,” he said later.

Fischer, 62, who owns a ranch with her husband near Valentine, rarely misses an opportunity to remind voters of how long her opponent has been away. She calls herself “someone who will bring Nebraska to Washington, not Washington to Nebraska.”

Kerrey has fired back that Fischer is a “welfare rancher” who criticizes government spending even though her family has long participated in a federal-land grazing program that offers below-market rates saving them more than $100,000 a year. It’s a risky charge to make, however, given how much of the state’s agriculture industry relies on government subsidies.

Kerrey has a well-established reputation for going against the partisan grain. When he served in the Senate from 1989 to 2001, his quirky brand of politics earned him the nickname “Cosmic Bob.”

He sprinkles his speeches with the names of Republicans with whom he has worked in the past, although most of them are long gone from office. When he was in Washington, Kerrey also sparred frequently with President Bill Clinton, whom he had run against for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination.

In 1993, the fate of Clinton’s deficit-reduction plan came down to Kerrey’s vote. After he and the president got into a profanity-laced argument over the telephone, Kerrey went missing, sending the White House and his Senate colleagues scrambling to find him. It turned out he had strolled out of the Capitol to catch a movie — the Tina Turner biopic “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” — at nearby Union Station. In the end, Kerrey supported the bill, though he lamented at the time that his “heart aches” because it “challenges Americans to do too little.”

Now, Kerrey portrays that kind of independence as an antidote to the rancor that has paralyzed Washington. He has called upon Fischer to join him in a pact renouncing spending on the race by super PACs and other outside groups, and to promise that if elected, neither one would secretly block presidential nominees, filibuster them or support any filibuster unless the senator who is staging it actually stays in the Senate chamber and keeps talking.

Those three things, he wrote in a letter to her on Friday, “would help make the Senate function much better.”

She has not agreed to any of his proposals.

Instead, Fischer also makes frequent references to the current Sen. Nelson, a conservative Democrat who became the crucial 60th Senate vote for President Obama’s health-care law after his state was offered $100 million in Medicaid funding.

The move backfired, and the “Cornhusker Kickback” stands as an emblem for insider dealing. Nelson asked Reid to remove it from the bill, and although he insisted that he had never asked for the money, the episode added to the Nebraska senator’s vulnerability back home.

“With your help, the very same Senate seat that gave us Obamacare will become the Senate seat that repeals it,” Fischer said to a standing ovation at the GOP state convention last Saturday in Grand Island. “With your help, we’re going to elect a senator that will make Nebraska proud.”

The anger over the Cornhusker Kickback has not gone away in the 21 / 2 years since it happened, Kerrey acknowledged, although he said it was “an odd situation where a senator actually does something for his home state and it becomes a negative.”

That is because the health-care law is unpopular in Nebraska, which is not to say that people like the current system either.

On the day Kerrey visited the shopping center in Alliance, it happened that a group called Missions of Mercy had converted a vacant grocery store there into a one-day free dental clinic. At 3 a.m., volunteers said, more than 100 people were already waiting in the parking lot.

When Kerrey popped in to observe the 80 dentists at work, volunteer Maureen Roller asked him: “Where do you stand on Obamacare?”

“I’m generally for it,” he said, which elicited a shudder from Roller.

But Kerrey has some ideas for how he would like to change the law. One that intrigues him is a “grand swap” being proposed by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), in which the federal government would take over the Medicaid program for low-income people, and the states would assume all responsibility for the nation’s 100,000 public schools. As it stands now, state and federal governments have joint responsibility for both.

A swap, Kerrey said, would lift some of the “welfare stigma” from Medicaid, which is the program under which the new federal law proposes to cover about half of the uninsured. It would also remove the drag that Medicaid puts on state budgets — one that gets heavier when the economy weakens, often forcing state lawmakers to cut education to compensate.

Whether Kerrey will actually get a chance to work on that in the Senate looks like a less-than-even bet right now.

Not that falling short would bother him all that much, he said.

“I just felt like I have a duty to do this,” Kerrey said. “I don’t need to be a senator again, and I won’t be heartbroken if I lose, but I thought I at least had to make the effort.”