From corridors of power to Mississippi fish fry
By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 13, 2003
BILOXI, Miss. - Haley Barbour, longtime Republican power broker and high-paid Washington lobbyist for some of the world's richest corporations, is back in his native Mississippi, working the fish-fry and county-fair circuit in one of America's poorest states.
He is trying to get himself elected governor.
"I'm running for governor because I know Mississippi can do better," Barbour said recently. "We're not reaching our potential. In fact, we're going backward."
The former chairman of the Republican National Committee has said he wants to use his Washington connections to help Mississippi create jobs.
The governorship might be considered a step down for someone so familiar with the corridors of power: The job pays just more than $100,000 a year, which may be a lot of money in Mississippi but is not much to the Beltway crowd. And the governor's powers are limited by a century-old state constitution that lets legislators dominate. Both chambers of the Legislature, moreover, are controlled by the Democrats.
State GOP leaders are hungry to reclaim the governor's mansion. Kirk Fordice, who served from 1992 to 2000, is the only Republican elected governor of Mississippi since Reconstruction.
In Barbour, the Republicans found a well-known native son with a record of getting others elected - he oversaw the national party when Republicans won control of Congress in 1994.
Barbour, 55, has spent more than a year working Mississippi's small towns, trying to convince voters he can do a better job than first-term Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.
Musgrove, 46, has yet to start his TV advertising or even make a ceremonial announcement of his re-election bid. He has said he will begin a few weeks before the Aug. 5 primaries.
"It's the hare-and-the-tortoise kind of deal. At this point, Barbour is the hare and Musgrove is the turtle," said Joseph Parker, a University of Southern Mississippi political scientist. But once Musgrove gets started, "he will run his legs off. He will campaign 16 hours a day," Parker said.
Musgrove is known for signing bills before dawn and maintaining a grueling travel schedule, popping up in small towns to hand-deliver checks for projects such as sewer improvements.
"He's just like an ordinary person who knows where he wants the state to go," said James Bolden, an independent who is an alderman in the Delta town of Rosedale, population 2,400.
Musgrove faces primary opposition from four Democrats who have raised little money and done little campaigning. On the Republican side, Barbour is up against a feisty newcomer, trial lawyer Mitch Tyner. But Barbour is largely ignoring him.
Neither Barbour nor Musgrove has released poll numbers.
Barbour - whose only previous run for office was a losing 1982 race against longtime Democratic Sen. John C. Stennis - has been criticizing Mississippi's budget problems and its loss of manufacturing jobs.
Musgrove says Mississippi has fared better than most states in a weak national economy, and he brags about the recent opening of a Nissan auto plant that eventually will employ more than 5,300 workers. He also points to a teacher pay raise plan passed under his watch, designed to move Mississippi off the bottom in the national teacher salary rankings.
"I think the people deserve more than simply sound bites or someone who is long on problems and short on solutions," Musgrove said.
The race is shaping up as the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in state history. Through the end of June, Barbour had raised nearly $3.9-million, compared with $4.8-million for Musgrove.
Barbour has brought in heavy ammunition from Washington in the form of Vice President Dick Cheney and hopes to get President Bush to help, too. Musgrove's donor list has some famous names - actor Morgan Freeman, who lives in Mississippi, gave $50,000.
Barbour's Beltway background is sure to become an issue.
John Paul Gates, an independent Rosedale councilman, said some Mississippians see Barbour as an outsider.
"The ones who care about a community, stay in a community," Gates said. "I don't think he understands the problems because he hasn't been in the small towns like Rosedale."
But Barbour notes that during his time in Washington - as political director for the Reagan White House, RNC chairman from 1993 to 1997 and as head of a lobbying firm whose clients included Microsoft and Lockheed Martin - he and his wife maintained a home in Yazoo City on the edge of the Delta.
Ellen Jernigan, a GOP alderwoman in Hernando, said she believes he will use his Washington contacts to help the state.
"Some people say he's a fat lobbyist," Jernigan said. "Well, he was successful in doing what he did."
Family values could also emerge as an issue: Musgrove and his wife of 24 years were divorced in 2001. That is a sore spot among some voters in this Bible Belt state. Barbour's wife, Marsha, makes frequent campaign appearances with her husband.
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