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Mississippi Voters Prepare to Make Their Primary Picks

March 10, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Mississippi's presidential primaries will be held Tuesday, and Sen. Barack Obama is heavily favored to win the Democratic contest. Judy Woodruff discusses the 'Magnolia Primary' with a political science professor and reporter from the state.

JIM LEHRER: And Mississippi is next. Judy Woodruff has the presidential campaign news.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Barack Obama rallied with enthusiastic supporters in Columbus, Mississippi, this afternoon, buoyed by the good news he received from Wyoming over the weekend.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Hello, Columbus!

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama scored 61 percent of the vote in Saturday’s Wyoming Democratic caucuses to Hillary Clinton’s 38 percent. He picked up seven delegates to her five.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, Bill Clinton was in Mississippi over the weekend, continuing to push the idea of a Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama ticket.

BILL CLINTON, Former President of the United States: If you look at most of these places, he would win the urban areas and the upscale voters and she wins the traditional rural areas that we lost when President Reagan was president. If you put those two things together, you’d have an almost unstoppable force.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hillary Clinton had raised the idea of selecting Obama as her running mate during a rally in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on Friday.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: Tuesday is a big day, and it’s an exciting contest. Who would have thought that either a woman or an African-American — let alone both of us — vying for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States?

This is a moment of historic celebration for America. But you got to make a choice. A lot of people wish they didn’t have to. I’ve had people say, “I wish I could vote for both of you.” Well, that might be possible someday.

But, first, I need your vote on Tuesday.

And I want you to think about this like you’d think about a hiring decision. Think about who you would hire for this job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But during his visit to Columbus, Mississippi, today, Barack Obama threw cold water on the idea.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I’ve won twice as many states as Senator Clinton. I’ve won more of the popular vote than Senator Clinton. I have more delegates than Senator Clinton. So I don’t know how somebody who’s in second place is offering the vice presidency to the person who’s in first place.

So I don’t want anybody here thinking that I — that somehow, “Well, you know, maybe I can get both.” Don’t think that way. You have to make a choice in this election.

Are you going to go along with the past, or are you going to go towards the future? Are you going to do the same old thing, or are you going to try something new?

I am not running for vice president. I do not believe Senator Clinton is about change, because, in fact, this kind of gamesmanship, talking about me as vice president, but maybe he’s not ready for commander-in-chief, that’s exactly the kind of double-speak, double-talk that Washington is very good at, that people who’ve spent a long time in Washington have a lot of experience at, but is not going to solve the problems of the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first thing’s first for Obama and Clinton, and that is the 33 Democratic delegates up for grabs in tomorrow’s Mississippi primary.

Open primaries less predictable

JUDY WOODRUFF: For a closer look at tomorrow's Mississippi primaries, we are joined by Marty Wiseman. He's political science professor at Mississippi State University and director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. He joins us tonight from Memphis.

And Shelia Byrd, she's a political reporter for the Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi.

Shelia Byrd, to you first. Who is voting tomorrow?

SHELIA BYRD, Associated Press: Democrats and Republicans. We have Republican and Democratic primaries tomorrow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you have some congressional races, as well as the presidential primary, right?

SHELIA BYRD: We have two contested congressional races in the 1st and 3rd District. The 3rd District is a heavily Republican district. And even though the first district, what has been held by a Republican for several years, some Democrats believe that they have a good chance there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Wiseman, tell me about the Democrats in Mississippi. And do you expect it's going to be only -- this is an open primary. So who all is going to be turning out to vote on the Democratic -- for the Democratic presidential candidates?

MARTY WISEMAN, Mississippi State University: Well, I do expect a heavier, probably than ever, Democratic turnout, particularly because 36 percent of the population in the state of Mississippi is African-American and they tend to vote 90-plus percent Democratic.

And this the first opportunity they've had to weigh in, in a major way, with a presidential candidate like them, so to speak. So I expect that to bring out a heavy vote, if not a huge vote, in tomorrow's primary.

But, you know, there's interest in Hillary Clinton, also, because of their tenure in the neighboring state of Arkansas, and she's a pretty well-known factor here.

Understanding the electorate

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor, give us a thumbnail sense of who the Democrats are in your state. You've got two Democratic members of Congress out of the four.

MARTY WISEMAN: Right. And then they, in essence, kind of represent two, I won't say factions, but two sides of the Democratic Party. African-American Democrats are pretty much like black voters across the nation in their favoritism of the Democratic Party.

But there are some traditional, older Democrats in the state, particularly in the northeast quarter of Mississippi. They're referred to often as New Deal Democrats or Jamie Whitman TVA Democrats, those who have been Democrats since birth.

And some of them thought that it was illegal to vote Republican up until a few years ago. And a candidate is successful when he can knit together those two factions of the Democratic Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Shelia Byrd, what would you add to that? How would you help us understand who the Democratic voters are in your state?

SHELIA BYRD: We do expect a pretty heavy black turnout tomorrow, but I would like to say that Hillary Clinton will get part of that black vote. Many of the people that I've interviewed over the past several days have expressed their support for Hillary. And many of them are women who say that they feel a connection to her because she is a woman.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when you talk to voters, Shelia Byrd, what do they say is on their mind? Do they talk about issues? What do they say is...

SHELIA BYRD: They do. They do. Health care is very important, that's paramount, as well as creating jobs here in the state.

You don't hear very many of the Democrats here talking about immigration. If you do, it's that really conservative group who usually vote along the lines of Republicans on various issues or support those type of issues that Republicans sort of support.

But most of what I've been hearing has been: We need more jobs. We need to improve the economy. And we need to end the war in Iraq. That's been another one of the main topics that voters have been talking about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Wiseman, what's your sense of what's motivating these voters?

MARTY WISEMAN: Well, I think Mississippi, being still very low on the totem pole in per-capita income, has a number of working-class, blue-collar-type citizens who feel a certain angst about their future, health care, whether their job will even continue to exist, whether they will be able to retire with a pension plan.

All those things seem to be affecting voters, and Hillary Clinton has a very populist approach to these voters. And the first stop they made when they came to the state was in Tupelo. And that's kind of in the heart of that northeast Mississippi working-class Democratic area. And I think it was a good move.

It's across the state from the delta, where Barack Obama should be strong. And I agree with Shelia Byrd: This is not confined to just racial voting. I've heard a number of white Democrats talk about voting for Barack Obama.

So I think voting purely on race may be a thing of the past. And that's one good thing we'll be able to demonstrate tomorrow in the primary.

Strong organizations on both sides

JUDY WOODRUFF: Shelia Byrd, tell us how much activity you've seen on the part of these candidates in their campaigns? How much have they been there?

SHELIA BYRD: Well, since last -- I want to say midweek, last week sometime, maybe Thursday or Friday, there's been a presence here. And they have been very active. They've been holding rallies and public forums.

Hillary Clinton had spoke at a fundraiser in Canton, Mississippi, on Thursday night, and it drew about 2,000 people. There is a rally today at Jackson State University, where hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons is encouraging Jackson State students to vote for Obama.

So they've been very active in the state. They've been pretty good at getting their message across to the voters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Professor Wiseman, how much of an organization are you seeing on the part of these candidates?

MARTY WISEMAN: Well, of course, Obama's organization nationwide has been almost legendary, and he's certainly been here in numbers. I've talked to a number of college students who have been solicited to go out and work in the Obama campaign.

Hillary Clinton has a key Democrat, Burns Strider, who knows Democratic politics like the back of his hand in the state of Mississippi, who has been very key in directing the Clinton campaign to the right spots in the state of Mississippi.

So it's gratifying, as a state who has been wanting to be a player in politics, to see this kind of organized effort in the state from two national campaigns like this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Shelia, what do you see in the way of organization, number of campaign offices, volunteers, and that sort of thing?

SHELIA BYRD: Well, Obama has campaign offices across the state. There's one here in Jackson that's been manned by Ray Mabus. And U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson is the co-chair here in the state.

And they've held a couple of news conferences to blast Clinton about a comment she made about women not getting past the glass ceiling in Mississippi, as for as being elected to Congress or being elected governor here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, what do the two of you expect in the way of turnout, Professor Wiseman?

MARTY WISEMAN: Well, normally we have had very low turnouts for presidential primaries in Mississippi because there didn't seem to be the need. I think we'll break records, as far as turnouts are concerned. And I think Obama probably will carry the day, possibly as much as 60 percent of the vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Shelia, I looked it up: 77,000 people voted in the Democratic contest four years ago. So you expect that number to go up?

SHELIA BYRD: Oh, definitely. Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann today predicted that we'll have up to 150,000 people at the polls tomorrow. However, there are some people in this state who say that that number is way too low and that it will far exceed that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will wait and see. We thank you both for talking with us, Shelia Byrd with the Associated Press and Professor Marty Wiseman, thank you both.

MARTY WISEMAN: Thank you very much.

SHELIA BYRD: Thank you.