The importance of beating Haley

Posted: Oct 30, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

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.