In less than two weeks, Mississippi's Third Congressional District voters will set about the business of doing something they haven't done in 30 years choosing a new congressman.
"Super Tuesday" primaries on Tuesday, March 12, will thin a field of nine Republican candidates and three Democratic contenders for spots on the ballot to face independent candidate Lamon Clemons of Meridian in November.
On the Democratic side, veteran State Sen. Rob Smith of Richland faces a primary battle with Madison lawyer John Arthur Eaves Jr., the son of legendary two-time populist gubernatorial John Arthur Eaves Sr., and former State Rep. Gary Staples of Laurel.
Eaves, the youngest candidate in the race in either major party at 29, was among the first to announce and appears to be devoting his full time to the campaign. Both Smith and Staples entered the race late and Smith has juggled the campaign with the demands of the 1996 regular session of the Mississippi Legislature.
While the least known of the three candidates, Staples appears to have made solid connection to the pro-life movement in the state.
Smith has struggled of late in the Rankin County portion of his district in recent elections. He needs a strong showing in his home county to compete with Eaves' strength in the rural counties in the district. At this juncture, Eaves appears to have the momentum to lead the Democratic ticket.
On the Republican side, the race is harder to call and the bulk of the influence of television on the race has yet to be felt.
To date, the Republican candidate with the widest paid media exposure has been Chip Pickering of Laurel, the 32-year-old former aide to U.S. Senator Trent Lott. Pickering's decision to go on television some three weeks ahead of the rest of the field with some $70,000 in commercials has given him an edge in name recognition over the rest of the field. Sources close to the Pickering camp confirm that a recent internal poll commissioned by the Pickering camp one not released to the press showed no candidate with more than 20 percent, but Pickering with a four-to-five point lead over former State Rep. Bill Crawford of Meridian in second place. Bunched closely behind Pickering and Crawford were Brandon accountant Dutch Dabbs, State Sen. Dean Kirby of Pearl and State Sen. Mike Gunn of Brandon in that order, the source said.
The spread between Dabbs, Kirby and Gunn didn't seem statistically significant leaving the race viable for all five candidates entering the stretch run of the last two weeks.
In every internal poll cited by any of the nine campaigns over the course of the election, Dabbs had the most consistent name recognition numbers. And Dabbs can make one claim that no other candidate in the race can make he's already received the votes of some 40,000 Third District Republicans in his 1994 bid to unseat Congressman Sonny Montgomery.
That number noted, the final two weeks of the campaign in the Third District will likely focus on three fronts the Golden Triangle, East Central Mississippi and Rankin County.
Crawford appears to be leading in East Central Mississippi on the basis of his strength in Meridian and Lauderdale County. Both Dabbs and Pickering also appear strong in the region.
Rankin County remains a political free-for-all, but longtime political observers there suggest that Kirby is forging a coalition of Republicans and conservative crossover Democrats that may lift him to a strong finish in his home county. Dabbs and Gunn also have strong Rankin County organizations and retired Mississippi Air Force National Guard officer Harold Cross will be a factor there, too.
Pickering must do well in Rankin County if he is to survive the first primary and Kirby has already launched some less than subtle broadsides at both Pickering and Gunn in his television advertising as carpetbagger candidates who moved into the district simply to run for the congressional seat.
The Golden Triangle area remains the hardest to call. Retired Cooperative Extension official Jim Yonge of Starkville is expected to do well in his hometown and Keith Heard, the former aide to U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, is concentrating his campaign efforts in that region, particularly n the Columbus area. Pickering also has some high profile support in that area of the state.
As the campaign winds down for the Republicans, Pickering clearly is the leading candidate in terms of fundraising on the strength of substantial out-of-state contributions and money is the mother's milk of modern politics. Crawford appears to have the most solid base of support from a geographic standpoint. Gunn is the most adept candidate in the race at getting his voters to the polls.
Dabbs has established impressive name recognition after staying on the campaign trail for some four years. Kirby has the backing of some Rankin County's most successful politicos.
Look for Rankin County to be the battleground and look for the candidates to take the gloves off during the stretch. Among the top five candidates, there are too many fishing from the same Rankin County electoral pond for this race to remain as cordial as it has been to date.
No one seriously believes that any of the Republican candidates can win the nomination outright on March 12 and the game now is to make the second primary. With five of the nine in striking distance, there's nothing left for them to do but engage each other on their rounds. And when that process begins in earnest, perhaps the voters will also become engaged.
As First District voters learned in 1994, voter apathy has dictated that it doesn't take big numbers to win. First District Congressman Roger Wicker was put on the road to Congress representing a half-million Mississippians that year with just over 7,000 primary votes.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist and editor of the Scott County Times in Forest.