History Might Repeat in Mississippi

Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a socially conservative Democrat with unquestioned political drive, finds himself in the fight of his political career on the eve of statewide elections here.

Musgrove, 47, is trailing in a tight race against Haley Barbour, the former head of the Republican National Committee and one of Washington's super lobbyists who got his start in the grass roots of the GOP here. Voters go to the polls Tuesday.

Despite Musgrove's successful push to raise teacher salaries to the southeastern average and in a state that typically finishes around 50th in such rankings and landing a $900 million Nissan manufacturing plant here, Barbour has found considerable vulnerabilities in the incumbent by pointing to the state's budget crisis, job losses, and deep cultural misgiving about Musgrove among some voters.

"We can do better,'' Barbour, 56, has been saying for over a year as he has crisscrossed this largely rural state. His advertising reminds voters of the "momentum" Mississippi seemed to have four years ago when popular, tough-talking two-term incumbent Gov. Kirk Fordice left office and the economy was at cruising speed.

Moreover, Barbour who early on had expressed hopes of winning as much as 20 percent of the state's considerable African American vote has in the final weeks reminded voters that Musgrove embraced changing the state's flag, which includes the controversial Confederate battle flag emblem. Voters rejected that idea in a 2001 referendum by a nearly two-to-one margin, determined largely along racial lines.

The outcome showed, Barbour said, that Musgrove was out of touch with Mississippi values.

Barbour, who as a young Republican and former Reagan White House staffer lost a 1982 bid against the revered and now deceased U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, has used his impressive Rolodex of connections and decades of experience toiling in Republican fields to amass more than $10 million. He has spent much of the year on television.

Moreover, he has spent the final days campaigning with NASCAR drivers and GOP stars. President Bush was here on Saturday to rally the GOP base Barbour believes he will need.

Barbour's camp is calculating that two down-ballot races that feature African American Democrats , for lieutenant governor and for treasurer, will invigorate the Democratic base.

"We hope there's a record turnout,'' said Quinton Dickerson, Barbour's campaign spokesman. "We've been working during the entire campaign to build a statewide, grassroots network of volunteers in every precinct to make phone calls and go door-to-door to ensure a big turnout on Election Day."

That Musgrove is even competitive with the Barbour juggernaut, though, has surprised many.

After the flag referendum, the "national" recession as Musgrove stresses -- and a mid-term divorce, many believed he was doomed. Indeed, just days before the qualifying deadline, the governor even toyed with the idea of heading up one of the state's universities, worrying Democrats across the state that they would have no candidate.

Instead, he focused with trademark intensity and 18-hour days that have marked much of his career. He has raised more than $8 million, $6 million this year, doubling his total from four years ago.

Moreover, in the height of anxiety over the jobless recovery and a wave of garment manufacturing plant shutdowns, Musgrove has relentless hammered Barbour not only for representing tobacco and drug companies, but also for lobbying for the Mexican government on NAFTA implementation.

When NAFTA passed, Barbour considered it a "real bright light," but for thousands of Mississippians, it was a dark day,'' Musgrove said last week at a press conference. "Bad trade agreements are still threatening Mississippi jobs. In five years, NAFTA will be fully implemented and talks are already underway to expand NAFTA to include South and Central America and the Caribbean. These are ongoing issues and they are not going away."

Polls show about a four or five point race, with Barbour leading. Marty Wiseman, a professor of political science at Mississippi State University, noted that Musgrove " is in fact in striking distance with a week to go. He has been there a couple of times (in previous campaigns) before. This is where he is comfortable."

Wiseman compares Musgrove's run with that of former Gov. Cliff Finch from Musgrove's hometown of Batesville. Finch defeated the more enlightened William Winter in 1975 by carrying a lunch pail and appealing to working class blacks and whites.

"Musgrove has made NAFTA his "lunch box" . . .and in so doing may be reassembling a segment of the old "black/red neck' coalition that served winning Democratic candidates so well back in the latter days of populists and demagogues, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

Behind the scenes, both camps were also preparing for a post-election night battle as well. In a hold over from segregation, Mississippi's constitution requires candidates to clear two election night hurdles. First they must receive more than 50 percent of the popular vote. Then, they need two win in more than half of the 122 House of Representative districts.

If neither candidate clears more than 50 percent on Tuesday -- and there are three other candidates on the ballot everything could be up for grabs in the House, where Democrats hold an overwhelming majority.

Four years ago, Musgrove led on election night with 49 percent of the popular vote and carried exactly half the House districts. The Democratic House leadership confirmed his election in January, largely by arguing he had the most votes.

This time, Musgrove has stopped short of embracing that "most-votes-wins'' argument, saying instead he respects the will of the House.

Reed Branson is a Mississippi political writer