Two things stand out in this debate. Senator Roger Wicker, who is always steady but never flashy, had the best showing of his political career at the debate held at the Mississippi College School of Law. If he could bottle his closing last two minutes of the debate, this race would not be nearly as close as the polls indicate. Secondly, Fmr. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is willing to say just about anything in a debate setting, and that’s hard to prepare for even as a viewer. Musgrove is a veteran politician and can deliver soundbites as well as Joe Biden, regardless of the veracity of it.

Both candidates have some tough issues to overcome in this Senate race. Roger Wicker is running as a Republican when the fundamentals in the electorate are not exactly favorable for Republicans. He also has not run statewide. No matter how much you are liked in your own district, running statewide is a different ballgame. Ronnie Musgrove has run successfully twice statewide and unsuccessfully once. But Musgrove has other real issues. First, he is running in Mississippi as a “conservative Democrat”, yet he is forced to support Barack Obama. Those two concepts are, by definition, mutually exclusive to anyone with a lick of common sense. And though Musgrove is a gifted politician, he has to craft a weird narrative as a “Washington outsider” that will caucus with Democrats to support Harry Reid for leadership, but vote against the Democrats on “God, guns, and pro-life” issues.

Panelist questions were predicatable and ran the gamut from the Bailout to Iraq to Katrina recovery to some specific charges of “mudslinging” and whether or not Wicker ever voted for a pay increase. However, the game changing question came as a submission by an unnamed MC Law School student who asked, Who are you supporting for President, and why?. Ronnie Musgrove was caught flush and stammmered around for a few moments before saying that he supported his “party’s nominee” (Barack Obama). Wicker replied head on that he supported John McCain and Sarah Palin and challenged Ronnie Musgrove to say directly that he supported Barack Obama in his response. Musgrove refused to give him the soundbite that would have been undoubtedly hung around Musgrove’s neck over and again in campaign ads in the last 30 days. Wicker closed that question by rhetorically asking, “How can you claim to be a fiscal conservative and support Barack Obama?” Wicker clearly drew blood through that exchange.

Otherwise, Musgrove and Wicker went at it steadily on issues that we have seen in both campaign’s ads. Musgrove hit Wicker on allegedly voting 9 times to increase his own pay. Wicker’s retort was that the last “up or down” vote on Congressional pay was in 1991 – three years before he became a congressman. Musgrove still said that Wicker makes $30K more per year now than when he started. Wicker hit Musgrove repeatedly on the Beef Plant scandal and the sources of his current and past campaign contributions from people like Dickie Scruggs. Wicker, I think, missed the golden opportunity to say that “Musgrove has accepted campaign money from people that were convicted of giving it to him”. Musgrove remained pretty slippery on those issues and has superior skills to twist the attention to another issue.

Both candidates offered strong answers on Iraq and both seemed to grasp what the War on Terror means to the United States. Musgrove is the father of an Iraq war veteran. Wicker is a third generation veteran himself. Though Musgrove was long on rhetoric about Wicker being bad for veterans, his assertions were devoid of any evidence and flew in the face of common sense of Wicker (a veteran himself) being “anti-veteran”.

Another exchange of interest centered on lobbying. Musgrove aggressively wailed on “pay to play” and asserted that Wicker “funnelled” $60 million to campaign contributors. Musgrove also wailed on the “special interest” and the corrosive effective of lobbyists. Wicker, in pretty deadpan fashion, recounted when Musgrove was in Wicker’s congressional office lobbying for something, which was pretty effective. Wicker hit Musgrove on taking Dickie Scruggs money. Musgrove hit back with the fact that Zach Scruggs used to be a Wicker staffer, which came as news to me.

With the rules expressly barring any audience outburst, the only overt laugh line was Wicker’s. The question came to Wicker, “How do you sleep at night with all of these negative ads about your opponent, when you were once roommates?” Wicker didn’t miss a beat and said, “I campaign really hard.”

The final exchange of the night was golden for Wicker. Musgrove’s final statement attempted to invoke Ronald Reagan’s “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”. Wicker then went to work. First, he said that Haley Barbour asked Mississippi voters that question in 2003 and the result was Ronnie Musgrove getting voted out of the Governor’s office. Then he stated that voters need not wonder about where he stands on issues. He cited his spotless pro-life record and endorsements. He talked about being a veteran, pushing through veteran’s benefit legislation and his involvement with VFW. He cited his second amendment credentials and NRA endorsement. He cited his fiscal conservatism by his support of the Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. He talked about his demonstrably strong record on immigration, and finished with his commitment to increase domestic energy production to achieve energy independence.

It was by far the most focused I have ever seen Wicker. He was infinitely more effective in this setting than at the Neshoba County Fair as this was much less a display of style and more a display of command of the issues. He never raised his voice. He never got flustered. He had a command of the facts and of his record and Musgrove never managed to trip him up.

This race was always going to be close. This was a good debate. How much impact a debate that competes with high school football on a Friday night will have is yet to be seen, but Roger Wicker had a great showing and clearly got the best of the exchange.

As stated on previous occasions, I have made a reportable contribution to the Roger Wicker campaign. Deal with it.