Mississippi governor's race reflects GOP's national power


JACKSON, Miss. - In the bruising campaign for Mississippi governor, it has come to this: the Republican candidate, Haley Barbour, is running television ads that boast of his prowess as an influence peddler.

Barbour, 56, is perhaps the most powerful lobbyist in Washington, with close ties to the White House and key members of Congress. He is narrowly favored to unseat Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in Tuesday's election, one of only three governor's contests this fall.

Under attack from the governor over his work as a hired gun for the tobacco industry and foreign governments, Barbour is trying to turn a negative into a positive.

He tells voters that, if elected, he'll be able to use his Washington contacts to benefit the state. In a commercial endorsing Barbour, popular Republican Sen. Thad Cochran praises him as a "success story: He built the nation's No. 1 lobbying firm."

Barbour has showcased his connections by bringing in prominent Republicans for campaign appearances. Heading the list is President Bush, who is scheduled to make two stops in Mississippi today, his second visit on Barbour's behalf.

Others who have come include Vice President Dick Cheney (twice), both Doles (Sen. Elizabeth Dole and her husband, Bob, who carried this state in the 1996 presidential election), Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a host of Bush Cabinet members and NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip.

The 56-year-old Mississippi native is also attracting record contributions - nearly $11 million so far - and an undisclosed sum that the state party is spending on his behalf.

"Haley Barbour has got enough money to burn a wet mule," lamented Dirk Dedeaux, a Democratic state legislator from the Gulf Coast.

Governor Musgrove, a folksy, hyperkinetic 47-year-old with a high-pitched voice, is struggling against more than a shrewd Republican opponent. He is also facing the same anti-incumbent sentiment, fed by a sluggish economy, that cost Gov. Gray Davis his job in last month's California recall.

Musgrove has kept out-of-state Democrats away, as part of a larger effort to frame the election as, in his words, a choice between someone "who puts Mississippi first" and "a Washington, D.C., lobbyist who will work for the people in Washington who support him."

But, privately, Democrats acknowledge that their party has few national figures who could help in Mississippi, which has gone Republican in the past six presidential elections and has seen a growing number of local officials switch to the Republican Party. A Barbour commercial, attacking Musgrove for supporting Al Gore in 2000, features grainy, slow-motion footage of the two men embracing at a political event (Gore, from neighboring Tennessee, lost badly here).

The governor identifies himself in commercials as an "independent conservative," rather than as a Democrat, which points up his party's long decline in this state and across the South. Polling indicates that the Republican candidates may well sweep this month's elections for governor in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.

That would give Republicans control of every Deep South governorship for the first time since the period immediately after the Civil War and would enhance Bush's strong re-election prospects in the region.

Musgrove, who said in an interview that he has always been an underdog at election time, is looking to blacks, who make up more than 35 percent of the population, the most of any state, as the key to his chances for an upset victory.

Democratic hopes for record black voter turnout increased when a black state senator, Barbara Blackmon, was nominated for lieutenant governor. But her campaign has been lackluster, disappointing many in her party.

Her name on the ballot has given Barbour an opening to attack what he calls the Musgrove-Blackmon "ticket," even though candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately in Mississippi. The state Republican Party, in a mailing to voters, lambasted the "Musgrove-Blackmon agenda" and superimposed photos of the two candidates inside a valentine heart.

Barbour said in an interview that it was legitimate to link the top two Democratic candidates, because they have appeared together at some events. He rejects criticism from Democrats who see the attacks as part of a coded appeal to racial prejudice. Barbour says he is "comfortable" with the way he has conducting his campaign.

The Republican is also running a television ad that accuses the governor of "attacking our flag." The reference is to a 2001 statewide referendum in which voters decisively rejected an attempt to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state flag. Musgrove supported the change (a similar stance by Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes of Georgia, in a fight over that state's flag, contributed to his defeat last year).

Barbour has also rejected demands by the head of the Mississippi NAACP and others that he ask for his photograph to be removed from the Web site of a white supremacist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens, that promotes anti-Semitism. While some of the group's ideas are "indefensible," Barbour said, he does not want to tell anyone they cannot use his picture.

"You know, the Clarion-Ledger [the state's largest newspaper] runs my picture. Lots of stuff they say I think is indefensible, too," Barbour said.

Leslie McLemore, a political scientist at Jackson State University, said Barbour's use of "race signals" has been subtle.

"Personally, I know Haley Barbour and I have personally been surprised by the extent that he has played the race card," McLemore said. "Everyone who follows politics is fully aware of what Barbour is doing."

Barbour had been forced to intensify his appeals to the "conservative, right-wing base" after his initial outreach to black voters fell short, McLemore said.

"I'm sure he was not as successful in the African-American community as he thought he would be," said McLemore, who also serves as a Democratic city councilman in Jackson, the state capital. "He knows he's not going to garner the percentage of black votes he wanted."

Public and private polling shows an electorate polarized along racial lines. Barbour is drawing about 70 percent of the white vote, Musgrove more than 80 percent of the black vote.

Though he has never held elective office, Barbour is a politician to the tips of his tasseled black loafers. He has worked in Republican politics since the late 1960s, rising to national party chairman in the 1990s after a stint as a Reagan White House aide.

He lost to the legendary John C. Stennis in the 1982 Mississippi Senate race, in which he subtly tried to make the 81-year-old senator's age the main issue. "We were pretty ginger about the age issue," Barbour said, according to a transcript of his 1991 interview for the Stennis oral history project at Mississippi State University. "I never said in the campaign, 'Stennis is too old.'"

Barbour's campaign slogan: "A senator for the '80s."

"Immediately, the press said, 'Yes, a senator for the '80s, not one in his 80s,'" Barbour told the interviewer. "Of course, we never said that, but we didn't have to."

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