Jewish World Review Oct. 23, 2003/ 27 Tishrei, 5764

Wesley Pruden

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In these precincts, no olive branch | OLIVE BRANCH, Miss. — So many ex-congressmen and the occasional ex-governor have become successful Washington lobbyists that it's tempting to think that pulling down the big lobbying bucks is the reason some men go after a public office in the first place.

Haley Barbour is seeking fame if not fortune backward, or at least from an unusual direction. He's one of Washington's most successful lobbyists, a Reagan White House veteran, Republican fund-raiser, restaurateur (the Caucus Room, near the MCI Center, has almost single-handedly rescued from trendy obscurity the noble iceberg lettuce dressed in blue cheese) and former party chief.

Now Mr. Barbour, 55, has come home, at least part-time, to run for governor. Some people in Mississippi who profess to be experts say he's the favorite. In this busy, prosperous corner of Mississippi, nestled just south of Memphis and its suburbs and just east of the throbbing action in the Tunica's cotton-patch casinos, signs of Mr. Barbour are all a visitor is likely to see. The signs, in fact, seem to sprout from every lawn, like jonson grass in the turnrow.

Looks could be deceiving. Ronnie Musgrove, the incumbent, only a month ago looked like playing the Democratic straight man at the Barbour homecoming. There are no public polls, but if you believe what the campaign chiefs and consultants say about their private tracking polls the governor has closed the gap smartly. More important, perhaps, the governor has closed the gap in money available for the homestretch to the Nov. 4 election.

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The airwaves are saturated with television commercials from the expensive Memphis television market south through the impoverished Delta to prosperous Jackson and beyond to the lively Gulf Coast. The TV spots, lobbing the usual libel and slander fare, are as ubiquitous as "Law and Order" re-runs.

The Democratic governor, 47, is depicted as a bumbling career politician (translation: "He can't find real work") whose lazy incompetence chased jobs out of Mississippi, where the unemployment rate is the highest in years at 6.3 percent. The Republican challenger, 55, is described as "a wheeler-dealer 'up there' being paid millions of dollars to represent interests that want to hurt Mississippi."

No one has to explain that "up there" means "up north." Mr. Barbour, whose thick Yazoo City drawl melts the butter on biscuits, is in the Democratic telling not much better than a yankee, and who raised the money to ram NAFTA through Congress. How else did all the Mississippi jobs get to Mexico?

How the two campaigns have raised a lot of the money to spend so lavishly speaks eloquently of campaign-reform legislation made to be exploited at the seams. Mississippi is awash in casino gambling, not only on the Gulf Coast, where gambling legal and otherwise has been a tradition for most of a century, but spectacularly in Tunica, where lavish casinos sprouted two decades ago from the vast cotton plantations along the Mississippi River. Tunica County went overnight from one of the poorest counties in America to one of the most thriving in Mississippi.

The law limits casino contributions to the candidates, but the "gamers," as the gamblers prefer to be called, can contribute to the national governors' associations, which the law regards not as PACs but as "nonprofits." The Republican Governors Association has contributed $2 million — so far — to Mr. Barbour and the Democratic Governors' Conference has contributed $1.6 million — so far — to Mr. Musgrove. An Associated Press survey reveals that dozens of Mississippi companies and "groups," including the casinos, contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the governors' associations. They in turn sent it back, squeaky clean, to the campaigns. Naturally nobody exceeded the thousand-dollar limit imposed by state law.

"You have to connect three or four series of dots to get back to the actual contribution," says a spokesman for the Mississippi secretary of state, who monitors these things. "It makes tracking campaign money more convoluted."

The governor, who won his first term four years ago with a bare 49.6 percent of the vote, is counting on a party-line vote, which means getting nearly all the blacks who, with a good turnout, comprise a third of the voters, and a third of the whites. Democrats are concerned that whites will remember his support of a referendum to eliminate the familiar St. Andrew's cross, the Confederate battle banner, from the state flag. The proposal lost by a 2-1 margin. The past, as William Faulkner famously reminded the unwary, is not even past in these parts.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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