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Sunday, Sep. 14, 2008

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Senate race one of the closest in U.S.

Similarities, differences collide

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WASHINGTON -- Mississippi's special election is one of the closest U.S. Senate races in the nation, with the Coast poised to play a decisive role.

But the two candidates, appointed GOP Sen. Roger Wicker and former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, aren't all that different - fiscal and social conservatives, they were once roommates when they were in the state Senate. They even look alike.

"He's lots older than I am," roared Musgrove when asked about his resemblance to the bespectacled, white-haired Wicker. Musgrove, 52, basically acknowledged the likeness to Wicker, 57, but said "that's where the similarities end."

Musgrove is running as an outsider to Wicker, a 13-year U.S. House veteran, who he says is beholden to "special interests." But Musgrove has his own record as governor from 2000 to 2004, when he was defeated by Haley Barbour.

Wicker, a former congressman from Tupelo, has been trying to get better known around the state and has visited the Coast 50 times since being named senator on Dec. 31.

"I'm on a first-name basis with all the local officials," Wicker said in an interview. And he thinks that his attention to the region by working on legislation to help construction, ease insurance costs and provide hurricane relief will make a difference in November.

Both candidates were on the Coast this weekend as Hurricane Ike nicked the region and pummeled Texas.

Musgrove is finding that, in a way, he's still running against Barbour, who is using his visibility and position to promote Wicker. Notably, Barbour is leading the effort to place the race to finish former Sen. Trent Lott's term at the bottom of the ballot on Nov. 4, something a New York Times editorial called a "dirty trick."

Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green ruled Friday that the ballot must be changed and the contest placed with the other federal races, but Barbour immediately appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

For his part, Wicker said the ballot placement "makes no difference to me."

"My significant advantage is 14 years of service to Mississippi and the Gulf Coast."

Mississippi State University political expert Marty Wiseman said that the race "is very, very tight" with a Rasmussen poll in late August giving Wicker a five-point advantage, within the margin of error.

"A lot depends on what Obama's coattails are like," Wiseman said of Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama, who is expected to encourage turnout among blacks. Mississippi's electorate is 37 percent black, the highest percentage for a state in the nation, making it a bellwether for Democratic hopes.

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