Mississippi gets a rare turn in the presidential campaign spotlight Tuesday, with a primary that — for Democrats anyway — has a national impact seldom seen in the Magnolia State.
"We finally have a primary that matters," says Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. "Mississippi's not used to being a player."
Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois are locked in a neck-and-neck battle for their party's nomination, and Mississippi is the only state that holds its primary Tuesday. At stake are the state's 33 Democratic delegates, which will be apportioned according to each candidate's share of the vote, and seven "super delegates."
African-Americans are 36% of Mississippi's population, higher than any other state, Wiseman says, and blacks constitute more than 50% of the Democratic electorate here. Recent polls show Obama leading Clinton, and Wiseman and other Mississippi analysts expect Obama to win the state.
Clinton, however, is conceding nothing. Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea, campaigned vigorously across the state last week.
In what she said was her 63rd campaign appearance at a college, Chelsea Clinton held an hour-long question-and-answer session with about 300 people Sunday afternoon at Millsaps College here. "I passionately believe in my mom," she told an enthusiastic crowd in a sun-dappled commons area.
Hillary Clinton campaigned in person Friday in Hattiesburg, where she told about 1,200 supporters that she — in contrast to President Bush — would hold Saudi oil producers accountable for high prices. She said the USA could create at least 5 million new jobs by creating alternative fuel and power and that Mississippi could be a leader in that effort.
Both candidates took a day off Sunday, according to their campaigns. Clinton planned to attend rallies in Scranton, Pa., today and in Harrisburg and Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Obama, fresh off his win Saturday in the Wyoming caucuses, is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting today in Columbus, Miss., and speak at an evening rally in Jackson.
His surrogates hit several locations in Mississippi on Sunday. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius addressed voters in Gulfport, while former Mississippi governor Ray Mabus and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons toured the Mississippi Delta promoting Obama's plans for jobs, universal health care and public schools. They were joined by Max Kennedy, son of former senator Robert Kennedy, who visited the Delta on a poverty tour in 1967.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona has already clinched his party's nomination.
Mississippi has an open primary, meaning GOP voters can cross over to vote in the Democratic primary.
No Democrat has carried Mississippi in a presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976. The second-term governor, Haley Barbour, is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
"I think it's going to be very difficult for the Democrats to win (Mississippi) this year," says Stephen Rozman, professor of political science at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo. "If the economy gets a lot worse, who knows, maybe the white working class would vote its economic interests instead of its social interests."
Rozman says he expects higher-than-usual turnout Tuesday.
"Mississippi is usually an afterthought," Rozman says. "There's some excitement in the air this year, relatively speaking," he says.