Desire for change eats away at deep South’s long-held prejudices

Ronnie Musgrove is not what one might call a “perfect candidate”. Ask Mississippians what they think about the former governor and many will tell you about the nasty divorce he had when he took office, and the meat packing scandal he has been linked to in what has been described as one of the dirtiest and meanest elections Mississippi has seen in years.

They will also tell you that Mr Musgrove has a good chance of winning a tight race against Republican Roger Wicker for a seat in the US senate. And that the potential election of a Democrat to national office in one of the most solidly red states in the union is another sign that a dramatic shift is occurring in the South. The “southern strategy” enacted by Richard Nixon – the systematic exploitation of racist opposition to the Democrats’ civil rights laws to keep the South firmly under Republican control – is coming undone.

“Someone like Musgrove has a good chance of winning [in part] because you have more and more whites in Mississippi who are willing to pull the Democratic lever. They don’t see that as voting with the party of black people [as they once did],” says Ralph Eubanks, a fellow at the New America Foundation who writes about Mississippi politics.

On paper, it is difficult to discern the real differences between Mr Musgrove, a conservative and populist white Democrat who talks about prayer in his television advertisements, and his Republican rival, who are vying for a seat once held by Republican senator Trent Lott. The two former room-mates even look alike.

But on election day, Mr Musgrove looks likely to get a boost from what is ex-pect-ed to be an unprecedented turnout among black and young voters who will over-whelmingly support Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama and, as it so happens, Mr Musgrove.

In this year’s state Democratic primary, more than 400,000 voters went to the polls compared with 76,000 who voted in 2004. Traditionally, for a Democrat to win state office in Mississippi, a candidate needs high voter turnout among blacks, and the support of 30 per cent of whites, many of whom know Mr Musgrove and relate to his hard-scrabble upbringing though they will not necessarily vote for Mr Obama.

Despite the predicted record turnout among his supporters, the Democratic presidential candidate is not expected to win the state and is not even campaigning there. But his electoral performance among white voters in Mississippi will nevertheless be watched closely on November 4 as a sign of how much has – or has not – changed in the deep South.

Financial Times