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Democrats Aim to Take Miss. Seat from GOP

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Okay. Let's focus in on the third of those special elections that Cokie mentioned. The Democrats have already won two. They're on the verge, they have a chance to win another one, even though it is in solid Republican territory - northern Mississippi. It's a Congressional seat that's vacant because the Republican incumbent got promoted to the Senate, and now Democrats are hoping for another win.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports on what may be changing in the Deep South.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Ordinarily, Republicans are as abundant as magnolia blossoms in Mississippi's first Congressional district. They've held this seat with comfortable vote margins since 1994, and the district has been solidly behind Republican presidential candidates for decades.

But this is no ordinary year, with President Bush's popularity dropping and gas prices on the rise.

(Soundbite of bell)

ELLIOTT: Democrat Travis Childers is trying to take advantage of the climate. Sporting his pencil-thin mustache, the Prentiss County chancery court clerk rolled up his starched shirt sleeves to pump gas last week at Kent's Citgo in Granada, Mississippi.

Mr. TRAVIS CHILDERS (Chancery Clerk, Prentiss County, Mississippi): How you doing, buddy? Good to see you, good to see you. Come on up. There you go. Here you go.

ELLIOTT: The catch? The gas was only a buck 25 a gallon, and the campaign was paying the balance of the 3.55 regular price.

Mr. CHILDERS: I'm going to be the friend to the working families, not big oil.

Ms. PAT FLANAGAN: Today's our lucky day, ain't it?

ELLIOTT: Pat Flanagan pulled up in her 2000 Plymouth Neon. She was third in line as cars backed up down the highway to fill up with the election discount.

Ms. FLANAGAN: I buy gas here all the time, so I'm excited about the price today. I do newspaper delivery for the Daily Star here in Granada, and it's been really rough.

ELLIOTT: She's ready for new representation in Washington.

Ms. FLANAGAN: Well, it don't seem like the Republicans are doing anything. So, I mean, you know, we need to get - put a new guy in, you know.

ELLIOTT: The national Republican Party is fighting hard to help their candidate, Greg Davis, overcome that sentiment. But it's using a strategy they also tried in Louisiana's recent special election, attempting to link the local Democrat with National Democrats who aren't looked upon to favorably down south.

(Soundbite political ad)

Unidentified Man: And if Travis Childers ever gets elected, he'll vote to keep the liberal House speaker from San Francisco, Nancy Pelosi, in power. That may be groovy in California, but here in Mississippi, that dog won't hunt.

ELLIOTT: Another ad links Childers to Barack Obama's controversial former pastor, and the candidate's, quote, "Ridicule for rural folks clinging to guns and religion." Childers' answer has been to sound more like a Republican.

(Soundbite political ad)

Mr. CHILDERS: I'm pro-life and pro-gun. I'm Travis Childers. I approved this message because I'll do in Congress what I've done in Mississippi: worked with both parties, balanced budgets and create jobs.

ELLIOTT: Childers is critical of Republican attempts to tie him to national Democratic figures.

Mr. CHILDERS: Let me tell you, they're trying to nationalize this race. This is not a national race. It's about 24 counties, working families in north Mississippi.

ELLIOTT: But Greg Davis says you can't put national politics aside. He says being on the Republican team still carries a lot of water in these parts.

Mayor GREG DAVIS (Southaven, Mississippi): This race is key in who we're going to stand next to in November for president, and who are we going to stand next for the US Senate seat election that's coming up. We're going to be next to Senator Roger Wicker and Senator Thad Cochran and McCain. We're going to be fighting for those to win those posts, and our opponent, obviously, will not be.

ELLIOTT: Davis is the mayor of Southaven, a bustling suburb of Memphis. He has strong support in DeSoto County, Mississippi's fastest growing region and where a big chunk of the district's voters reside. But Democrat Childers draws more rural support, making this the most competitive race this district has seen in memory - not a good sign for the GOP, says political columnist Sid Salter with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

Mr. SID SALTER (Columnist, Jackson Clarion-Ledger): If the Republicans can't hold the first congressional district seat in Mississippi, then the party nationally, certainly, has got problems because this is a region of the country and this is a region of Mississippi that should pretty easy pickings for the Republican political message of the last three decades.

ELLIOTT: Whatever happens, both parties get another shot when these same two candidates face off again in the general election. Tuesday's vote decides who will have the incumbent advantage. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Tupelo, Mississippi.

INSKEEP: Our political editor Ken Rudin has been writing about the congressional special elections and what you can learn from them in his Political Junkie column. You can find that easily by going to npr.org/politicaljunkie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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