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Candidate Brings Washington to Mississippi Race

Former GOP chairman Haley Barbour wants to take his Beltway backing to governor's mansion.

October 26, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG, Miss. — For 18 years, Haley Barbour was the consummate Washington insider -- political director in the Reagan White House, two-term chairman of the Republican National Committee, head of a powerful lobbying firm. But he wants something more.

That is why one recent Wednesday evening, Barbour was exchanging hugs and handclasps with guests at a fish fry in an arena that usually hosts livestock shows or motocross races. In a career switch, the political pro who made a national reputation helping other Republicans win office is running himself, for governor of Mississippi. On Nov. 4 he will try to unseat incumbent Democrat Ronnie Musgrove.

"We've got real problems, but we don't have any problems that we can't solve with strong, effective, honest leadership," said Barbour, 56, speaking in the warm drawl of his native Yazoo City, in the cotton-growing delta.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a longtime friend, had flown in for the day to campaign alongside Barbour, telling the crowd of 1,200 that just as Californians chose "The Terminator," they should elect "The Barbourator."

"He's got a Rolodex that's so thick with contacts that he won't brag about," said the president's brother. "But I'm telling you, it's going to be great for Mississippi to have a leader that can call anybody in the world and make the case to bring investment and jobs to this state."

That logic resonates deeply with many in one of the nation's poorest states, where more than 100 manufacturing plants have shut down in the last three years. But Musgrove, 47, is campaigning hard to convince people that his challenger is a front for hostile outside interests.

"The message is real clear: a governor who will work for you -- the people -- or a Washington lobbyist who will work for them -- the big drug companies, the big tobacco companies, countries that have hurt us," said Musgrove after debating Barbour at Mississippi State University. "He's out of touch by having been in Washington for the past 20 years as a Washington, D.C., lobbyist."

"I'm not going to apologize for being successful," retorted Barbour. "I want more people in Mississippi to be successful."

The two are strikingly different: The Democrat, angular and gawky, the child of parents who hadn't finished high school, became lieutenant governor and four years ago the state's governor; and the Republican, affable and rotund, the offspring of a prominent lawyer, became a habitue of Washington's K Street and founder of Barbour Griffith & Rogers Inc., rated by Fortune as the capital's most influential lobbying firm.

"Haley's got the right connections, and we really need the right connections in Mississippi," said Paul McMullan, 74, a retired banker and Barbour supporter who attended the fish fry.

"We need new blood for this state," said his wife, Georgie, 72.

"Musgrove thrives on adversity. He gets up off the mat every time," said state Treasurer Peyton D. Prospere, a Musgrove appointee.

The governor must cope with the fallout of a poor economy, as well as his divorce since taking office. But his chances for re-election may hinge on voters' feelings about the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Musgrove blames NAFTA for the loss of 41,000 Mississippi jobs and says Barbour lobbied for its passage -- a charge the Republican calls "demonstrably untrue." Barbour says he agreed to lobby for the Mexican government eight years after NAFTA became law only to help resolve a border dispute over trucking.

Nevertheless, in a state where virtually everyone knows somebody thrown out of work by factory closings, the credence that voters give Musgrove's allegation could determine who wins on Nov. 4, said W. Martin Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

Carolyn Perkins, 56, blames Barbour in part for what happened to her. She and her husband lost their jobs when the Fruit of the Loom mill in Batesville closed in 1995. She said management told her the factory, where she earned $27,000 a year supervising the making of men's briefs, was relocating to Mexico.

"It turned my life upside down," Perkins said. She is not sure how, she said, but she believes Barbour was somehow responsible for NAFTA and the factory's shutdown.

To live down the potentially lethal label of Beltway fat cat, Barbour has been campaigning in all of Mississippi's 82 counties, pressing the flesh at country stores, truck stops and coffee shops. Campaign manager Henry Barbour, a nephew, said his candidate's name recognition was only 50% at the beginning of 2003.

"So we've been on TV essentially since the middle of February, telling people about Haley's ideas and how to make Mississippi better," he said.

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