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In Deep-Red Miss., Senate Seat Up For Grabs

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In Deep-Red Miss., Senate Seat Up For Grabs

Election 2008: Congressional & State Races

In Deep-Red Miss., Senate Seat Up For Grabs

In Deep-Red Miss., Senate Seat Up For Grabs

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Mississippi's Republican Sen. Roger Wicker finds himself facing former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who is pro-gun and anti-abortion rights, in the race to fill the seat Republican Trent Lott easily held for years. Wicker says he is running against "Obama-Musgrove." Debbie Elliott

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

We've been hearing a lot recently about that magic number - 60. That's the number of seats you need for a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. In order to reach 60, Democrats are looking to pick up a seat in what had been a safe Republican district - Mississippi. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The last time Mississippi elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate was 1982. So you might figure in comeback Republican Roger Wicker would be shoo-in after being appointed last year to fill Trent Lott's seat. Not so - he's in a tight race with Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, a former governor who's trying to take advantage of public sentiment.

NORRIS: Many Mississippians feel like the rest of the country. Ninety-one percent of America believes we're headed in the wrong direction. They have seen an administration and a Washington that's not working.

ELLIOTT: At this veterans' event in Jackson, Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia joined the Musgrove campaign. The former Navy secretary brought to Mississippi the message that helped him win in Virginia two years ago - that it's time for Reagan Democrats to come home.

NORRIS: I'm proud to have served in the Reagan administration, but I think the answer for the future of the country is in the Democratic party, and you're seeing a transition and a lot of the states here began in Virginia but I think particularly in these hard times, the Democratic party has been the party that's going to take care of the working people.

ELLIOTT: Don't expect the wholesale shift here. Republican John McCain should carry Mississippi in the presidential election, and Wicker showed benefit from his coattails. But because this is a special to fill what's left of Lott's term, the candidates will not be identified by party on the ballot. So Wicker is trying to tie Ronnie Musgrove to national Democrats and highlight the balance of power that's at stake.

NORRIS: This is about whether the Senate will have a veto proof, left-wing majority, a filibuster-proof majority.

ELLIOTT: One of the latest Wicker ads links Musgrove to liberal groups that donate to the Democratic senatorial campaign committee. Characters including actors resembling the 1970s group The Village People line up with briefcases full of cash as a political operative eggs them on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN TV AD)

U: Let's go! Ronnie Musgrove has promised to support our liberal Democratic leadership. Let me guess.

U: The largest gay rights group in the country.

U: Your money will help.

U: I'm with the largest pro-abortion group in the country. Is Roger Wicker pro-life?

U: Absolutely.

U: Then we'll support Musgrove.

U: You know Ronnie. He delivers.

ELLIOTT: A Democratic ad tries to counter the image that Musgrove is out of touch with conservative Mississippi values. It follows him to choir practice.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SINGING CHOIR)

NORRIS: As a Christian, we have a sense of duty, obligation, responsibility and more importantly desire to help people who were in need. It's what the Bible teaches.

ELLIOTT: Musgrove says he's pro-life, pro-gun and anti-gay marriage, but that's not enough for a retired truck driver, Frank Holder, of Florence, Mississippi.

NORRIS: And I am a conservative. I'm also a Christian. Until the Democrats come up with a policy that they're against abortion and gay rights, I'll never vote Democrat.

ELLIOTT: Holder came to hear Roger Wicker at a gathering of Evangelicals at a private college south of Jackson.

NORRIS: It says in Ecclesiastes there's a time to speak and a time to be silent. This is no time for mainstream Mississippians and mainstream Christian Americans to be silent.

ELLIOTT: Wicker is courting the Republican base in a year when who turns out to vote is key. His opponent Ronnie Musgrove is expected to benefit from Democrat Barack Obama's popularity among African-Americans, more than a third of Mississippi's population. Back in downtown Jackson, black voters have the economy on their minds.

NORRIS: We need somebody who's going to give us jobs.

ELLIOTT: Seventy-seven-year-old Frank Dennis runs a shoe repair shop on historic Ferris(ph) Street - once a bustling African-American business center during segregation. They use an old-fashioned steel shoe jack to nail toe plate onto men's dress shoes. Dennis' Shoes opened 61 years ago.

NORRIS: That was back in the days when you could come to Ferris Street and get a dozen of fresh eggs. You can get a bunch of tender greens with or without roots. You get your carrots and your okra, tomatoes and potatoes (unintelligible) anything you wanted. It's gone.

ELLIOTT: Now much of Ferry Street is desolate - its store fronts mostly boarded up or busted out. Frank Dennis says he thinks Democrat Ronnie Musgrove could do something about the struggling economy.

NORRIS: We don't have too many jobs here. The only big job we have here, Musgrove gave it to us - and that was a Nissan plant.

ELLIOTT: But even the Canton, Mississippi Auto Plant is feeling the financial squeeze. This week, Nissan said it was downsizing to a four-day work week. The question is which Senate candidate Mississippians think can best deal with the economic fallout. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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