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'The big 3'

Bryant, Dennis, Reeves front-runners for Republican nomination

When former Gov. Kirk Fordice decided it was time to make it official that he would seek a second term, he called Gulfport businessman Dave Dennis and inquired about doing it at Dennis’s house.

Sure, Dennis said, but there was an issue.

“We were remodeling the house we lived in, so we were actually in a secondary house,” Dennis said. “We told him if it rained that day the roof’s going to leak and it’s probably going to flood. He said that was perfect. He might have had an adjective or two in there, but he liked it. That was pretty cool.”

From his declaration in Dennis’s Gulfport home Fordice went on to defeat Dick Molpus, his Democratic opponent, and became one of them more popular governors in state history in strictly political measures.

It is fitting that Dennis is now taking a long, hard look at the Governor’s Mansion. Like Fordice, Dennis has long been actively involved in GOP causes. He is a former finance chair of the Mississippi Republican Party and has served on the finance committees of Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker.

Also like Fordice, Dennis is a contractor. He has owned and operated Specialty Contractors and Associates since 1985.

While Fordice and Dennis had both become well-known within Republican circles as dependable fundraisers, neither had actually taken a swing at running for office. For Dennis, that is almost certain to change.

“We are moving forward, and the official line is still that we are very, very seriously considering (running for governor), with an announcement coming at the appropriate time in the near future,” Dennis said. “(Gov.) Haley (Barbour) would tell you in a heartbeat that it is way too early to make an announcement like that.”

Nevertheless, Dennis has started a Political Action Committee and has hired staff to raise money and keep up with all the required filing with the secretary of state’s office. Fundraising events are already on the calendar.

“As we unfold down the road, PR and those kind of things would come into play,” Dennis said. “Right now, I’m pretty much just delivering speeches. What we’re doing more than anything is just moving around the state and visiting with people.”

Dennis seriously considered seeking the governor’s office in 2003, but backed off when it became clear that Barbour intended to run.

With Dennis unofficially an official candidate, the field of GOP candidates for governor in 2011 has clarified somewhat. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant has not come out and said he’s running, but he has not denied that he is when given opportunities to do so.

“In all good conscience, any objective observer would have to acknowledge that Phil Bryant is the frontrunner,” said Andy Taggart, a Madison attorney and GOP strategist. “He’s an unannounced candidate, but he’s on everybody’s list as a virtually certain candidate. He has built on instead of eroding his support around the state.”

Bryant has been on a statewide ballot as a candidate for state auditor and lieutenant governor, winning each time. Name recognition is not going to be an issue. That is something that could help him and hurt him, according to Taggart.

“You would love not to have to be in the middle of controversial battles such as the big budget throwdown recently. On the other hand, if you conduct yourself well and acquit yourself well even in the context of a lot of political battles, that can be a plus. I think it’s a mixed bag.”

While it seems a lock that Dennis and Bryant will enter the fray – and Taggart admits that “the strength of those two may very well pre-empt others from entering the race” — a haze of uncertainty surrounds some of the other potential candidates. State Auditor Stacey Pickering, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and State Treasurer Tate Reeves are the names most commonly mentioned, with Reeves considered the most likely of the three to run. Each has said they’re focused on their current jobs and have not offered any solid clue what their intentions are for 2011. Former Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, who’s now a special assistant to Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum, has also been the subject of speculation.

“I really can’t imagine picking up a ballot in 2011 and her name not being on there,” said Marty Wiseman, executive director of the Stennis Institute at MSU.

Aside from Dennis, each of those potential candidates are well-vested in the state’s political system. Taggart and Wiseman agree that could work in his favor.

“When you’ve got an anti-Washington, anti-Jackson, anti-government climate that reaches a point where every conversation about politics starts with the government being the enemy, it’s the perfect time for a businessman, non-insider to get out there and run,” Wiseman said.

Taggart said Dennis’s campaign would probably be a mirror image of Fordice’s first run in 1992, when he beat incumbent Democrat Ray Mabus.

“I won’t be surprised if he runs his campaign with that same sort of philosophy – businessman, non-politician, outsider. Dave can say all those things accurately.”

It’s a role Dennis embraces.

“As Gov. Fordice used to say, we’ve signed the front side of a payroll check and sweated in the vineyards of maintaining the success and viability of a small business operation,” he said. “To that end, I feel it is important to have somebody who is tested and proven within the business community and the financial community. We’ve been about as vetted as you can get. I would challenge you to find anyone who’s done more with the resources we have available to us.”

By CLAY CHANDLER I STAFF WRITER

clay.chandler@msbusiness.com

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