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Political issues overshadowed by campaign contribution tally; nagging questions linger

Barbour, Musgrove in dead heat in governor’s race

The media campaigns are full throttle. But determining who is ahead at the polls — Democrat Gov. Ronnie Musgrove or Republican contender Haley Barbour — has been the source of much debate.

“I wish we had guts enough to run our own poll so we’d have our own numbers,” said Marty Wiseman, political science professor and director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “Haley Barbour was first declared to have a really big lead in the late spring. That gap closed just after Labor Day. Momentarily, Musgrove has a lot of people’s attention but it’s starting to settle back down again.”

Musgrove surprised many people recently when he publicly supported Judge Charles Pickering, a judicial candidate President George W. Bush nominated last year to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Pickering’s nomination had been blocked partly because the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) alleged he was hostile “to NAACP priorities, specifically civil and voting rights.”

“The Musgrove strategy is odd because, by making this conservative independent move and writing a letter in support of Judge Pickering, he’s alienating his core voters hoping to get some swing voters. It’s going to backfire,” said James Stewart, professor of political science at Mississippi College. “Musgrove waited too late to start his ads and he probably shouldn’t have gone as negative as he did. Musgrove has a record he can run on and he probably should have done that, but I don’t see how he can get away with not saying he’s a Democrat.”

Even though Democrats may not agree with Musgrove’s approach, it will not matter if he is re-elected, said Wiseman.

“Ricky Cole and others at the top of the Democrat Party will say ‘look, the heck with that, let’s win and have our discussions the day after the election,’” he said.

Musgrove will use his strong suits —being a tireless campaigner and an expert at opposition research — to gather steam as Election Day closes in, said Wiseman.

“Musgrove concentrates a lot of his and his staff’s time on opposition research,” he said. “Somehow, he can come up with a date and time and place of something you did nine years ago. A lot of people say that’s negative campaigning, but if you are a public figure and you do something publicly, then it’s fair game and you can put your spin on it.”

The governor’s race has grabbed headlines more often about money raised by each campaign than the issues. Each has raised close to $6 million.

“Look at the people who are giving $5, $10 and $25,” said Stewart. “They’re the ones who are going to come out and vote, and they’re going to get their friends to vote. Votes, not money, win elections. And Barbour seems to be the one getting those small contributions. I don’t think the big contributions from outside sources are going to help Musgrove that much, because those people don’t vote in Mississippi. I assume he’s going to use (their money) for a big media blitz right before the election. That’s about all he can do at this point.”

Wiseman said, “I knew Barbour would be a tremendous fundraiser but I’ve been surprised that Musgrove has been able to keep pace like he has. He’s raised double and then some, compared to what he spent on the last campaign.”

The two candidates have jousted over NAFTA and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the state and the cure for education woes, but neither has focused much attention on an issue that stirred controversy in the legislature soon after Musgrove, who was backed by the AFL-CIO, took office, and which would greatly affect the business community: the creation of a state department of labor.

When legislation was introduced in 2000, Senate Bill 2668 would have given the governor carte blanche over the Mississippi Department of Labor-Management Relations. Proponents of the bill said Mississippi was the only state without a labor department and that the consolidation of numerous functions from other areas of state government under a single agency would be cost-efficient and could result in increased federal funding for workforce training dollars.

Musgrove had been quoted as saying that, because Mississippi does not have a labor department, more than $50 million in federal funds for programs to help people move from school to work had to be returned under Gov. Kirk Fordice’s administration. Others disagreed, saying the Welfare to Work money was returned to the federal government because Fordice and the head of the Department of Health and Human Services determined that TANF funding was sufficient for what needed to be done in this state. Amid controversy, the bill died.

Last year, the proposed state department of labor was back on the drawing board, but it didn’t gather much support and the legislation died.

“Many of our existing state agencies currently handle issues of importance to our workforce,” Musgrove said last week. “I am supportive of attempts to consolidate and streamline government so our agencies that deal with workforce development and employment issues are readily available, in one centralized location, to the working men and women of Mississippi.”

Barbour said he was opposed to the creation of a state department of labor “because it would add an unnecessary bureaucracy and burdensome regulatory environment on small businesses.”

An even bigger issue — finding the money to fund the existing state budget — has yet to be fully answered by Musgrove or Barbour. The first of four public debates was held Sept. 29, giving the public its first glimpse of the candidates answering questions — and offering solutions — under pressure.

“The race is too close to call, but Barbour probably still has a little bit of the lead,” said Wiseman. “I know he’s going to treat it as a dead heat right up until the last ballot is put in the box. He’s not going to do what (Republican gubernatorial candidate) Mike Parker did four years ago and call off the dogs in the last week of the campaign. Haley has a strong campaign apparatus and works hard. Musgrove is going to work from three o’clock in the morning until midnight, and if he sees he needs to work one more hour, he will. It’s going to come down to the wire.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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