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OMAHA — Republican Jon Bruning ended his U.S. Senate campaign on Tuesday night, deferring to and endorsing the candidate many consider a prohibitive front-runner, former governor and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

Nebraska’s attorney general ended his five-month campaign after raising more than $1 million for his bid to replace outgoing Republican Chuck Hagel, money Bruning said he will sit on to possibly use in a future run.

“If I do my job, political opportunities will come,” said Bruning, who is serving his second term as attorney general. “The timing wasn’t with me this time, but I’m confident the time will come someday.”

Bruning said that neither Johanns nor anybody from the party asked him to end his campaign. In endorsing Johanns, Bruning said they simply agreed on the issues and he didn’t want to campaign against someone he liked.

“I hope people realize that I was willing to put the state’s interests, the party’s interests ahead of my personal interests,” Bruning said. “I didn’t want to be the guy that divided the Republican party.”

Bruning is Johanns’ second casualty after former U.S. Rep. Hal Daub ended his short Senate bid in September when it became clear Johanns would run. Bruning at the time repeated the message on which he entered the race — that he would not defer to any candidate.

Standing alongside Johanns Tuesday night, Bruning said that he didn’t think Johanns would run when he announced his candidacy, and thought about dropping out of the race as soon as Johanns entered.

“Jon would have been a very formidable opponent,” said Johanns, who said he would continue to campaign hard even as the field thinned. “I take nothing for granted.”

Johanns resigned his Cabinet post with an endorsement from President Bush, who will visit Omaha in December to raise money for Johanns’ campaign.

The GOP’s national senatorial committee has made it clear Johanns is its top choice in the race.

“While we generally benefit from strong contested primaries, we’ve got a candidate who’s been tested at the national, state and local levels,” said David Kramer, former chairman of the state GOP. “I believe that today won’t be easy, but tomorrow and beyond, Jon’s reputation will be enhanced because of this.”

Bruning’s exit leaves Schuyler businessman Pat Flynn as the sole Republican challenger to Johanns. Flynn has never run for political office, but said Tuesday he won’t back down.

“Our resolve has only gotten stronger,” Flynn said. “The constitution guarantees that citizens, not the political establishment, have the right to choose a member of their own party to represent them.”

After Hagel announced in September he wouldn’t seek re-election, Republicans worked quickly to present a united front.

Next fall, 34 Senate seats will be on the ballot, and the minority Republicans hope to retain the 22 seats they hold now. When Hagel made his plans clear, many Republicans feared a strong Democratic run by former governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey. Kerrey was widely seen as the Democrats’ best hope of winning the seat until he said last month he wouldn’t run.

“We are confident that we will have at least one qualified candidate in the race soon,” said Matt Connealy, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party.

Bruning jumped in the race early. After initially saying he wouldn’t challenge Hagel in the primary, the attorney general changed course, unleashing harsh criticism of Hagel and saying he had lost touch with Nebraska conservatives.

Bruning took Hagel to task for his persistent criticism of the war in Iraq and decided to enter the race after Hagel voted in March in favor of a military-funding measure that included a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. President Bush in May vetoed legislation that called for troop withdrawals.

Bruning has said Johanns flip-flopped on illegal immigration, campaigning as agriculture secretary for Bush’s failed immigration legislation.

Bruning is serving his second term as Nebraska attorney general after six years in the state Legislature. He was first elected attorney general in 2002, beating Democrat Mike Meister. He ran unopposed last year.

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