Republican Favored in Mississippi Gov's Race
By Reed Branson, Special to Stateline
JACKSON -- A Republican who seems to be modeling his campaign after Texas Governor George W. Bush's issue-light style appears to have overcome a significant polling deficit and is on the verge of an upset in Tuesday's election for Mississippi governor.
Mike Parker, a congressman for 10 years who switched to the GOP in 1995, started the year trailing Democratic Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove by double digits in polls. But after out-fundraising Musgrove, a statewide elected official who has controlled the public policy debate in Mississippi for four years, Parker is saturating the airwaves with witty, stylish television ads. A survey the week before the election by Mason Dixon Opinion Research for WAPT-TV in Jackson showed Parker leading Musgruve 47 to 41 percent.
To counter, Musgrove is accusing his opponent of dodging specific stands on issues, pointing out policy gaffes and vigorously criticizing Parker's budget-cutting votes in Congress.
"You just heard the best my opponent has. He told you education is his number one issue, but what did he say and do to change it?" Musgrove asked an audience at a candidate forum in Starkville, Miss. last Thursday.
After anti-tobacco warrior Atty. Gen. Mike Moore decided against a run for governor, Musgrove was believed to have the Democrats' best shot at winning back the governor's mansion after eight years of Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice.
But in Parker, Musgrove has come up against a smooth-talking, easy-going candidate who may be connecting on a personal level with average Mississippi voters.
Parker has raised more than $3 million while Musgrove has raised more than $2 million.
While much of the public appears ambivalent about the election as Mississippi's economy rolls on in unprecedented growth, Democrats were hoping a proposal to limit terms of legislators would result in a higher-than normal turnout among black voters in the Mississippi Delta. Many black elected officials are concerned that their seniority-based gains in the Legislature will be erased.
Musgrove is airing radio advertisements suggesting Parker is Fordice's hand-picked choice. Fordice, whose public acknowledgment of an extra-marital affair embarrassed Republicans and the state, has remained invisible during the election.
Parker supporters were hopeful that his humorous and sugary advertising was reaching undecided voters despite editorial attacks for its lack of substance. Parker is refusing to air any criticism of his opponent, and his ads include one classic line in which his mother tells him she'd rather see him lose a clean race than win a dirty one.
In another, he says, the Musgroves "are good people," but asks voters not to turn the clock back by returning a Democrat to the governor's mansion.
In person, Parker is hitting more typical Republican hot buttons, promising an income tax cut and suggesting that Musgrove is beholden to the state's largest teacher union, the Mississippi Association of Educators.
He has struggled with facts and figures at moments, and once told reporters he helped write and voted for a massive transportation bill in Congress. When confronted with the record that he didn't vote for it, he said he had forgotten.
It's unclear whether voters will hold him responsible for stumbling on the details. But stung by criticism he doesn't understand the intricacies of policy, Parker is promising to remake the Mississippi public school system and says he will not seek reelection in four years if there is not significant improvement in test scores.
"I have kids in the public school system," Parker told the Starkville, Miss. audience. "We've almost doubled the amount of money we spend on education in kindergarten through 12th grade, but ... we haven't seen test scores rise in a corresponding fashion."