In the four plus years that I have been doing political blogging, no one race or issue I have spent time on has ever garnered this much attention. My phone has rung off the hook and my ear has been talked off by supporters from both sides trying to get me to see this race their way.

The stakes are high. The winner of the Republican primary will likely win the general election in November. Though Haley Barbour has played the primary on the sidelines, it is an easy bet that he will get very involved with the nominee and help guide them to victory for this critical role in his second term administration. That factor has not been taken into account in the Ross v. Franks and Bryant v. Franks polling that has been tossed about.

With as much attention on this race, you would think that everyone’s analysis about the dynamics of the race would have some consensus. Not so.

What we agree on

Both candidates are well funded.
There will likely be about 200,000 Republicans voting on election day.
Both candidates have run pretty clean races. This race could have been a lot nastier.
These are two good men who would both be good Lt. Governors.
There are huge stylistic differences to these candidates.
Phil Bryant had a large name ID lead in the beginning.
Charlie Ross is gaining support in polling.
This race will be won/lost in about six counties.
That is about where the agreement ends.

Ross Supporters’ Take

Ross Supporters largely admit that they started “in the hole” from an identity perspective, given that Phil Bryant was a sitting State Auditor and that he was more of a known quantity statewide. Money was raised fast and early with the full knowledge that name ID would need to be purchased over time, and Ross’ team did an outstanding job early. The best indications from Ross supporters say that the combination of name ID purchase and ads highlighting Bryant on the Partnership and his stance on gaming on the Coast is working, and that the race is within the margin of error on their polling. Ross has been active on TV (which they feel is working well) and will likely dump the rest of his campaign stash on TV and direct mail in the last week. They cite a large number of undecideds that could break either way. Odds are that Ross will try and generate some movement over the PEER report via TV during this last week.

Ross has very much tried to prove that he is the more conservative of the two candidates and is hoping “cultural” endorsements from groups like the NRA and Right to Life prove those credentials. The Ross camp is also trumpeting their endorsement from the Sun Herald, which is decidedly the most conservative of the two major statewide daily newspapers.

Bryant Supporters’ Take

On the other side of the equation, Bryant supporters are literally predicting a blowout – a 20 points plus margin according to some insiders. Bryant’s ads have been very soft, for the most part. He has fired off a couple of attack ads on Ross, but by and large, he has been very name ID oriented with the bulk of his media buys.

Bryant is also placing a lot of stock in endorsements. From individuals like mayors and county officials in key areas (like Desoto County) to trade organizations like the Homebuilders and the MS Association of Realtors, he has focused his endorsement efforts on organizations that will hopefully help him get out the vote. His major “cultural” endorsement comes from Don Wildmon, who heads the American Family Association. It was likely that endorsement that forced him to toe the line against onshore gaming on the coast, which Ross quickly exploited in ads on the Coast. Bryant also garnered the endorsement from the Clarion Ledger.

Bryant is very at ease on the campaign trail, and he communicates ideas well. Though he has been outraised by Ross so far, he seems to have done a better job in getting trade organizations (who have a lot to lose by picking the wrong horse in a primary) to committing early to his success. The latest word is that Bryant has turned on the fundraising jets since Neshoba earning a good bit of PAC money that may be opportunistically hopping on to his campaign at a critical point.

The Wildcards

The Coast. This is the first statewide election since Katrina. Polling for newcomers on the Coast is almost impossible because traditional assumptions about voter turnout (and even voter whereabouts) are completely out the window.

Desoto County. Desoto is a very conservative county primarily served by the Memphis media market. The conventional wisdom is that Bryant can possibly win without carrying it, but there is really no scenario that Ross can win without winning Desoto. Both candidates have resources on the ground there and are deploying more.

The Machine. Get Out The Vote (GOTV) will be everything in this race. In a primary, it is about getting “your” voters to the poll. Having run three statewide campaigns, it is a pretty natural assumption that Bryant will have his machine ready with key folks in key places. Ross, if he is to overcome, will have to outperform Bryant by a full point or two to overcome this edge.

My take

First of all, my take is not an endorsement of either candidate. This is just as I see things a week away from the election. And this is tough because I have spent time with both candidates and like both candidates and believe both would make outstanding Lt. Governors.

I have thought for a while that this race wouldn’t be close (inside 5 points). From the beginning, I thought Bryant’s name ID and stature as a twice re-elected statewide official would be prohibitive and that it would be a double digit victory for Bryant.

Supporters of both candidates allude to polls providing support for their respective cases. The race is unquestionably narrowing, as it should be. Ross has spent a lot of money and he is a good guy with good credentials. From a name ID perspective, he had nowhere to go but up. The questions are, “How much has it narrowed and can it close fast enough”?

At the end of the day, I think Bryant will win the nomination. The truth of where this race actually lies is probably somewhere in the middle of the two polling extremes. Right now that makes it, in my mind, a 9-12 point race in favor of Bryant. That is not an impossible deficit to overcome with a week to go, but it is unlikely given that I think Bryant will have an edge on election day with turnout. Something major has to come out of the woodwork for Ross, and if we haven’t heard about it by now, I doubt we will.

Like most Mississippi political junkies, I will be watching on election night to find out who will likely emerge as the man who will likely be our next Lt. Governor. At the end of the day, it will be implied that the candidate who winds up short on votes get behind the winner and ensure a critical victory in November.