Robert Novak

That's where the politics of personal destruction comes in. To woo white voters in this conservative state, longtime office seeker Musgrove cannot appear much to the left of Barbour. He positions himself as pro-life, pro-gun and anti-tax, calling himself "independent" and "conservative" (while Barbour is self-identified as "Republican" and "conservative"). With both candidates given its "A" rating, the National Rifle Association endorsed Musgrove on grounds that a tie goes to the incumbent (and the NRA always likes to back a Democrat to maintain its non-partisanship). That edge is expected to be nullified this week with the endorsement of Barbour by pro-gun totem Charlton Heston.

So, Musgrove's quest for white votes necessarily is based on personal attacks. During their last debate, he declared: "The choice is clear: a governor who is going to work for you, or a Washington, D.C., multi-millionaire lobbyist who's going to use his power and influence to work for them."

Barbour's background is indeed unusual. His only previous experience as a candidate came 21 years ago when at age 35, the former GOP state party staff director was badly beaten by octogenarian conservative Democratic Sen. John Stennis. After that, his career centered on Washington -- as White House political director, Republican National Chairman and founder of a powerhouse lobbying firm. Barbour returned home every weekend to a modest house in Yazoo City, Miss. That has not impeded Musgrove's television ads (financed largely by the trial lawyers) from assailing Barbour as the evil lobbyist.

Musgrove's latest ad cited a 1999 Barbour quote, featuring his self-effacing humor: "I don't have anything that's not for sale except my wife and children." That prompted the announcer to say: "Washington lobbyist Haley Barbour helped Mexico steal Mississippi jobs and tobacco companies poison our kids."

Earlier Musgrove ads held down Barbour's support, but this last attack may have gone too far. It was followed not only by Barbour's best showing in the polls, but also generated protests from non-conservative newspapers. Tuesday's voting in Mississippi will determine whether there are limits to the kind of politics Terry McAuliffe likes to play.

Robert Novak

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

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