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Backers tout Obama as best choice for the Magnolia State

Mississippians just don’t seem to know what’s good for them.

That, in effect, is what state Democratic Party leaders are saying as they look ahead to Tuesday’s election.

With polls of Mississippi voters showing the Democrats’ presidential candidate, Barack Obama, trailing Republican John McCain by anywhere from 8% to 13%, Democratic party officers and prominent Obama allies said that on the issues that really matter in Mississippi — the economy, education and health care — their candidate is clearly the best for the state, whether Mississippians know it or not.

“It is very much in the interest of the people of Mississippi to elect Obama, because we’re one of the poorest states in the union and Barack Obama’s plan to turn this country around will help most Mississippians,” said Jamie Franks, chairman of the state Democratic party.

Mona Pittman, state secretary for the Democrats, said Obama’s proposal to cut taxes for families that make less than a quarter-million dollars a year and to raise taxes for those that make more would give a boost to the Mississippi economy.

“We don’t have many people who make more than $250,000,” she said. “I think what Obama and (running mate Joe) Biden will do for this state is put the power back in the middle class. I think that’s the strength of not only the state but the country.”

Yet while polls have shown Obama pulling ahead nationally, electoral maps still color Mississippi in solid Republican red. State Republican leaders said that’s a sign that Obama’s policies wouldn’t be as good for the state as the Democratic leadership claims.

“I’m not sure that he would totally benefit the State of Mississippi,” said Brad White, the state’s Republican party chairman.

White said Obama’s tax plan would ultimately hurt the nation’s economy — and Mississippians along with it — by reducing the incentive to succeed.

“This idea that we’ve got more poor people (in Mississippi) and so we would benefit more at the end of the day when he decides to redistribute the wealth — I mean, what’s going to happen to all the poor people when the country goes under?” he asked.

Henry Barbour, a Republican national committeeman and Gov. Haley Barbour’s nephew, echoed that view.

“If you raise taxes on small businesses, small businesses will hire less people,” he said. “Some, particularly in this economy, will lay off people. They will pay people less. They will be less inclined to have health care benefits.”

The question of how Obama’s tax policies would affect small business owners has been the subject of intense debate during the campaign. McCain has said his opponent’s proposal would increase the tax burden on small businesses; Obama has disagreed.

Independent analysts at organizations like the Tax Policy Center and the Tax Foundation have said McCain is only partly right. Some small businesses would see a tax increase under Obama’s plan; most, however, would see their taxes stay the same or drop.

But what seems to worry Mississippi Republicans far more than the intricacies of tax policy is their belief that Obama’s views are hostile to the state’s conservative values.

White listed a series of sensitive issues, from gay marriage to abortion to gun control, on which he said Obama is simply out of touch with Mississippi voters.

Obama has said he supports civil unions for same-sex couples. He has received 100% pro-choice ratings from Planned Parenthood and NARAL. He has also clashed with the National Rifle Association over gun control issues.

“That’s not very in line with the values of mainstream Mississippi,” White said. “I think you’ll see our (federal) courts go further to the left with the type of appointments that he would make, none of which would share the values of Mississippians.”

“I think Barack Obama is an elitist and apparently doesn’t understand people who go to church and believe in their Second Amendment rights,” Barbour said.

But Obama supporters said their candidate is more conservative than he’s been portrayed.

“I think basically he’s more a conservative than he is a liberal,” said Democratic national committeewoman Johnnie Patton.

Wilbur Colom, a Columbus lawyer and a longtime Republican stalwart who has switched parties to back Obama this year, took issue with those who say the Illinois senator isn’t a good cultural fit for Mississippi.

“If you mean by raising your family, taking responsibility, being a good father, working hard, being honest, being truthful, then he’s culturally like I am,” said Colom, who was a delegate for George W. Bush in 2004 but has since become a passionate Obama ally.

Another divisive issue weighing heavily on people’s minds is race.

Even Republican leaders acknowledged the historic significance an Obama victory would have for Mississippi, home to the country’s highest concentration of African Americans. Obama, the first black Presidential nominee from a major party, won Mississippi’s Democratic primary overwhelmingly in March and has enjoyed tremendous support from African Americans here.

Yet officials from both parties acknowledged that Obama’s race will hurt his chances with a portion of the state’s white electorate.

Franks, the state chairman for the Democrats, said all these issues have combined to complicate Obama’s relationship with Mississippi voters.

“People in Mississippi are very conservative,” he said. “I think in some instances race is going to make a difference. And I think the views that people have on social issues are going to make a difference.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Joshua Howat Berger at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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