Image: Trent Lott
Rogelio Solis  /  AP file
Former senator Trent Lott, R-Miss., resigned one year into a six-year term, leaving his replacement, Roger Wicker to battle to keep the seat.
updated 7/3/2008 3:59:41 PM ET 2008-07-03T19:59:41

Roger Wicker leaned up against the rails of the oyster schooner Mike Sekul, enjoying the slight Mississippi Sound breeze and some scrumptious, bone-sucking ribs with his son McDaniel.

This is the good part of being the newest member of the U.S. Senate, getting to ride along on a schooner race on the Gulf Coast. The bad part comes when Wicker makes port. Keeping his Senate seat will be a battle, something no incumbent senator from Mississippi has had to worry about in a generation.

A couple of hours before he boarded the Mike Sekul, a state doctors association staged a publicity photo with Wicker, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, each in boxing robes and holding up gloves in pre-fight pose.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour gave Wicker an 11-month head start as an incumbent, appointing him to the Senate in December after Trent Lott resigned only a year into a new six-year term. At that point, Wicker had represented northern Mississippi in the House for 13 years.

Republicans feeling pressure to keep seats in South
Even before Lott's surprise resignation, Republicans faced a daunting task holding their 48 seats in the 100-member Senate. The GOP is defending 23 of the 35 seats on the ballot in November, and for some of them — in Virginia, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Colorado — Democrats have a clear edge.

Wicker cautions against reading too much into the fact that Musgrove is giving him a real race to finish out the last four years of Lott's term.

Thad Cochran and Lott have "been our senators since most people can remember and now that the seat is open, it's going to be a competitive race, and I never expected anything other than that," Wicker shrugs.

But the fact that a Democrat is able to seriously challenge a Magnolia state Republican in a GOP stronghold for a seat in the Senate is almost heresy in Mississippi, which hasn't had a close Senate race in two decades. It could bode ill for Republicans all around the South and maybe the nation.

Video: Mississippi win hurts GOP? "We're concerned in the South. We've lost some Republican seats and that can't help but worry all of us who are interested in keeping good Republicans in office," said Lucedale Mayor and town doctor Dayton Whites, who perched Wicker atop a fire engine in front of Town Hall for a campaign appearance.

Some Mississippians say it won't matter whether Republicans as a national party are up or down.

"I think most people wish for someone to stand up for Mississippi," said Clarence Kelley of Louisville, who was waiting to hear Wicker in Vicksburg at a Mississippi firefighters convention. "I think the average person in Mississippi is looking at the person, not the party."

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They'll have no choice when it comes to filling Lott's seat.

Since the November election is a special election to fill the last four years of Lott's six-year term — even if it is being held on the same day as the general election — Wicker and Musgrove won't have Republican and Democrat labels next to their names on the ballot.

That may put Wicker at a disadvantage. This is his first statewide race and he's not yet well known in the heavily populated Delta and the Gulf portions of Mississippi, Lott's former stronghold.

Name recognition important
Wicker "doesn't have any exposure down this way," J. Allen Walters of Wiggins said after hearing Wicker speak at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in Perkiston.

"Musgrove is known statewide," said Walters, a Republican whose son Nick was appointed by President Bush in 2001 to be state director of the Agriculture Department's Office of Rural Development. "I think the name recognition will just follow him. I don't know if Wicker can get out and meet everybody like Musgrove has."

After finishing a 13-mile bike ride through the Civil War battlefield where Union forces laid siege to Vicksburg, 70-year-old Alan Lessem continually calls Wicker "Sen. Licker" before being corrected by a reporter.

Nonetheless, Lessem is leaning toward voting for him. Musgrove has "had his chance. Let other people come in and try," Lessem said, wiping sweat from his brow.

Soft-spoken and deliberate, Wicker doesn't have the stateliness of Mississippi's other senator, Thad Cochran, or the folksiness of Lott, but people like him, whether or not they're going to vote for him.

Doris I. Alexander, 78, was one of those people who sat out in the sun just to see Wicker, despite being a longtime Democrat. "So far, I think he's doing a good job," said Mrs. Alexander, although she added that she plans to vote for Musgrove.

Even Musgrove, Wicker's former roommate when they were state senators, acknowledges he can't say "bad things about Roger."

That doesn't stop him from painting Wicker as a party-line Republican and a symbol of what Musgrove calls Washington's preoccupation with partisan politics rather than finding solutions.

"Washington is not working for us, whether you're talking about economy and jobs, whether you're talking about health care or whether you're talking about the high price of gas and food," Musgrove said. "Solutions seem to be escaping people in Washington."

Although Bush made a fundraiser appearance for him this week in Mississippi, Wicker is staking out some space between himself and the president and GOP presidential nominee John McCain.

Agriculture still plays major role
Cotton may no longer be king in Mississippi, but agriculture still is. The state has more than 42,000 farms averaging 262 acres — a $6.4 billion industry responsible for one of every four jobs in the state. When Bush vetoed a $290 billion farm bill as a giveaway to wealthy farms, Wicker joined with Cochran and Democrats to override it, twice, though he didn't think about it twice. "I've taken tougher votes," he said.

One of McCain's signature issues has been his campaign against congressional earmarks, back-home pet projects that lawmakers put into spending bills. Mississippi has benefited greatly from decades and decades of earmarks by powerful Washington sons like Lott and Cochran, and Democrats like the late Sens. John Stennis and James Eastland, as well as longtime former Rep. Jamie Whitten.

"I'm not yet signed on the notion that a member of Congress that is accountable to the people should make no decisions with regards to specifics in a spending bill and every bit of spending should be done by a bureaucrat on the seventh floor of some building in Washington, D.C., who the voters never get to meet," Wicker said.

Taking views opposite from Bush on farm subsidies and McCain on pet projects may not be enough.

Barack Obama's presidential candidacy is sure to bring out black voters in record numbers. Thirty-three percent of Mississippi voters are black, and most are Democrats.

And Wicker's old congressional seat was just won by Democrat Travis Childers in a special election in May, a week after House Democrats also picked up a retiring Republican's seat in neighboring Louisiana.

President Bush's low polling numbers, dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq and high gasoline prices have leaders in both parties suggesting that Democrats may have an easier time getting elected than Republicans, something Wicker acknowledges.

"Cycles come and cycles go, absolutely," Wicker said, relaxing in a chair after speaking to the firefighters in Vicksburg. "But in years where there's a Democratic tide, as there may be this year, Republicans still manage to win. When it's all said and done, Mississippians will look at 13 years of mainstream conservative Republican representation that reflects the values of Mississippi."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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