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The Morning Grind / DayAhead

Biloxi (Kentucky, Louisiana and Philadelphia) blues

From John Mercurio
CNN Political Editor

Republicans on a roll? Haley Barbour, left, challenges Dem Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, their final televised debate is tonight.
Republicans on a roll? Haley Barbour, left, challenges Dem Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, their final televised debate is tonight.

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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
Morning Grind
Haley Barbour
Ronnie Musgrove

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- What happens tonight in Biloxi, Mississippi, will go a long way toward deciding whether the California recall was a fluke -- or whether Republicans are developing a knack for knocking off Democratic governors.

We're speaking, of course, of the final televised debate between Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat narrowly elected four years ago, and his big-name, high-dollar GOP challenger, Haley Barbour, who has outraised Musgrove by a mile and probably poses the most serious threat of any challenger in the four major off-year elections taking place three weeks from tomorrow.

No word on whether Musgrove's ex-wife Melanie will take a front-row seat at tonight's debate, as she did at a forum last month, at Barbour's invitation. And it's unclear whether Musgrove will mention a scandalous photo of Barbour recently featured on the Web site of the white supremacist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens. But both candidates have pledged to make tonight's face-off a gloves-off throw down. The debate starts at 8 p.m. EDT.

Distracted by events out West, the Grind admittedly has glossed over these four big contests. But that's about to change.

Unless someone takes out petitions to recall Arnold Schwarzenegger and convinces millionaire Rep. Jane Harman to finance the endeavor, we'll spend the next three weeks offering up analysis of hot gubernatorial races in Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana, as well as Philadelphia Mayor John Street's re-election bid -- the only race we know in which an FBI probe has boosted poll numbers.

Democrats are defending seats in Kentucky, Mississippi and Philadelphia; Republicans now hold only Louisiana. Kentucky and Louisiana are open seats.

Anything could happen before November 4, and all four races remain tight. But polls suggest that one likely outcome is a full, four-seat flip, with each party losing its current posts.

If that occurs, Republicans would celebrate a net two-seat pickup of governors' offices and a mayoral win in one of the nation's biggest and most reliable Democratic strongholds. Coming just four weeks after Bill Lockyer and 3.74 million other Californians cast ballots for Schwarzenegger, Republicans would rightly declare '03 an electoral success and claim an undeniable Mo' heading into '04.

Such a blowout would have clear implications for President Bush. Republicans would use the wins to discredit claims that California was more about disgruntled voters replacing a consummate insider with an untrained outsider, assertions that hardly bode well for Bush in a race against, say, Howard Dean or Wesley Clark.

Sources say Bush -- who carried Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky in 2000, but lost Philadelphia by a wide margin -- plans an early November campaign sweep for three GOP gubernatorial candidates, including a November 1 stop in Mississippi for Barbour.

For his part, Barbour -- the named partner in the blue-chip lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers Inc. and former Republican National Committee chairman, whose White House ties make Arnold look like, well, a Kennedy -- has vowed to turn tonight's face-off into a brawl over a recent Musgrove TV commercial that accuses Barbour of helping "tobacco companies poison our kids."

"For him to say that is the equivalent of me saying Ronnie Musgrove helped hook our kids on crystal methamphetamine because he didn't oppose a 40-percent cut in the state Bureau of Narcotics drug enforcement budget," Barbour told the Biloxi Sun-Herald last week.

"If I said something like that, I would be pilloried. There is a line somewhere. Are the newspapers of the world just going to shrug it off when he says something like that?"

Musgrove has remained unbowed. Referring to Barbour's barbs, he recently quipped, "A governor can't govern with a big stick and a bigger temper."

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