Robert Novak

JACKSON, Miss. -- Rudy Giuliani was here earlier. Dick Cheney campaigned in the state Monday. George W. Bush on Saturday will make two stops in Mississippi. And to cap it off, auto driver Darrell Waltrip arrives before Tuesday's election. All are trying their best to elect as governor Haley Barbour, a major player in national Republican politics for a generation.

No prominent national Democrat dares set foot in the state to help re-elect Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. He would meet Bill Clinton or Al Gore at the state line to keep them out. But that does not mean this election is unimportant for the Democrats. National Chairman Terry McAuliffe has spread the word that defeating so prominent a Republican in the Deep South would "pave the way" for defeating President Bush nationwide next year.

The importance of beating Barbour goes beyond Democrats retaining one of their few Southern footholds. Mississippi is a laboratory for use of personal attacks that are at the heart of McAuliffe's model for beating Bush. But Musgrove, an accomplished hit man, went a step too far in accusing Barbour as a Washington lobbyist of helping "tobacco companies poison our kids." Since that allegation, Barbour has broken out of a virtual dead heat to a five-point lead in the polls.

Mississippi is the most Republican of the Deep South states, won by Bush in 2000 by 17 points and represented in the U.S. Senate by two Republicans. Musgrove occupies the governor's office because of a lackluster campaign by his Republican opponent, then Rep. Mike Parker. Yet, if African-Americans (one-third of the state's population) vote in unusually high numbers, Musgrove can win. Democrats hope a black candidate for lieutenant governor, State Sen. Barbara Blackmon, brings them out Election Day.

Bush's Mississippi landslide included little more than 3 percent of the black vote, and polls now give Barbour 11 percent. However, Barbour does not match Bush in total domination of white voters. A recent survey shows Barbour ahead of Musgrove, 70 percent to 22 percent. But if the Democrats get up to 25 percent of whites, the Republican is in trouble.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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