Miss. candidates: High stakes set tone for ads

Published 3:31 am Sunday, October 5, 2008

U.S. Senate candidates Roger Wicker and Ronnie Musgrove acknowledged Friday night that the advertising in their high-stakes contest is negative, but neither took responsibility for the harsh tone.

During a debate televised statewide, they said national party committees are pumping big money into the race to fill Trent Lott’s old seat, and the committees’ spending is beyond their control.

The candidates attacked each other’s records in office, and each said the other is fiscally irresponsible. However, they agreed on several issues, such as their opposition to the financial bailout approved by the U.S. House and Senate. Both said country needs a new energy policy. Wicker said he wants to expand domestic oil drilling, but Musgrove provided few specific ideas about how to bring down the price of gasoline.

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The election is Nov. 4. The winner will fill the final four years of a six-year term Lott started. Lott first won the seat in 1988 and rose to the top ranks of the Republican leadership.

When Lott retired last December to become a lobbyist, Gov. Haley Barbour moved Wicker from the U.S. House to temporarily fill the Senate seat. Musgrove was a one-term governor who was defeated by Barbour in 2003.

Musgrove, now 52, and Wicker, now 57, shared an apartment in Jackson in the early 1990s when they served together in the state Legislature. They responded Friday to a question from a Tupelo TV journalist who asked the former roommates how they could sleep at night, given the relentless ads that accuse each other of failing in public office.

“I campaign mighty hard all day long and I’m kind of tired at night, so I can sleep,” Wicker said, drawing some laughter from the audience at the Mississippi College Law School in downtown Jackson.

Wicker said groups that support abortion rights are giving money to help Democrats try to strengthen their majority in the Senate.

“Elections are tough. The choices are big this year, and the stakes are very high,” Wicker said. “And, frankly, that’s why we’re seeing so many negative ads.”

Musgrove, like Wicker, said he opposes abortion and supports gun-owners’ rights. He said Republicans are twisting his record, and if he goes to Washington he will not vote strictly along party lines.

“Roger Wicker and his allies have spent millions of dollars to personally attack me, even to the point of his ad calling me a liar,” Musgrove said. “I don’t sleep well at night when someone is calling me that.”

Wicker and Musgrove cast each other as financially irresponsible.

Wicker said that Musgrove, as governor, erased the state’s surplus and increased the debt.

Musgrove said that during the 14 years Wicker has been in Washington, the national deficit has ballooned. Wicker was first elected to a U.S. House seat from north Mississippi in 1994.

An audience member asked the candidates who they’re supporting for president.

“Roger and everyone else knows I’m supporting my party’s nominee just like he’s supporting his party’s nominee,” Musgrove said, without saying Barack Obama’s last name.

Wicker said he’s voting for John McCain.

“Maybe during the rebuttal, Mr. Musgrove will actually be able to bring himself to utter the words ’Barack Obama,”’ Wicker said.

Mississippi is a politically conservative state that has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980, but Democrats are hoping that Barack Obama’s nomination will cause a significant increase in minority voter turnout. The state’s population is about 37 percent black.