SID SALTER: MSU candidate forum's a barometer of hot 2011 to follow

On Wednesday night, I moderated the candidate forum sponsored, organized and implemented by Mississippi State University students and featuring the majority of the field in the 2011 governor’s and lieutenant governor’s races.
My take on the evening was this – State’s students organized an impressive event that produced an excellent barometer of the 2011 campaign that will follow.
The faceoff between the two Republican primary contenders for lieutenant governor – state Sen. Billy Hewes of Gulfport and state Treasurer Tate Reeves of Flowood – was the main event. The winner of the Hewes-Reeves tilt will almost certainly be the lieutenant governor as the GOP nominee faces no Democratic opposition in November. Only Reform Party candidate Tracella Lou O’Hara Hill stands between the GOP nominee and leading the state Senate in 2012.
First off, there was no winner or loser between Reeves and Hewes on this night. The questions the students chose were broad-based public policy questions and didn’t evoke a direct confrontation on any key issues over the primary battle that will be concluded in just over four months.
But the emerging campaign themes are obvious.
Reeves, 36, concentrated his remarks on his two terms as treasurer, his successful legal challenge to the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi and his fiscally conservative political philosophy. Reeves also spoke about his sometimes contentious interaction with Democratic House leaders.
Hewes, 49, used the MSU event to draw the contrast of his five terms in the Legislature and his maturity, talking more than once about his MSU freshman daughter, Megan. Hewes also talked about his legislative experience at length.
Those are the likely themes for the rest of the race. Hewes will talk about legislative experience and maturity. Reeves will talk about experience as a statewide official and his conservative philosophies.
Reeves began the race with a decided lead. Hewes has closed some of that initial gap.
The GOP primary in this race is the hottest race on the 2011 ballot.
As for the forum in the governor’s race at MSU, the absence of front runner Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant due to a scheduling conflict took some of the intrigue away from the evening, but the event was also illustrative of the race to come.
Bryant’s Republican challengers Dave Dennis of Pass Christian and Hudson Holliday of Poplarville polished their messages. Dennis says the state’s hiring a CEO and that he’s “signed the front of a paycheck” as a Gulf Coast contractor. Holliday, a retired Mississippi National Guard major general and a current Pearl River County supervisor, told the audience that education was the “number one, number two and number three priorities” in his plans if he’s elected governor.
Among the Democrats, Clarksdale attorney and businessman Bill Luckett and Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree both had strong showings. Luckett went public with his support for the state collecting sales taxes on Internet sales. Dupree also cited the need to look at “new revenues” for the state.
Fellow Democratic contender Bill Compton, a Meridian teacher, accused Gov. Haley Barbour’s administration of Medicaid cuts that produced “babies who were born dead” and promised to fund education first. Republican Moss Point environmental contractor Ron Williams told the audience that he wanted to be “the two-cent difference between Republicans and Democrats” in Mississippi.”
But the man who got the loudest applause of the night was self-described “country clodhopper” Guy Dale Shaw, the Democrat from Coffeeville. Shaw’s storytelling enlivened an otherwise uneventful night in the gubernatorial forum – drawing laughter and applause from his opponents on both sides of the aisle.
In this season of political incivility, the MSU debate was an exceedingly civil affair. But then, it’s April. The political barometer indicates that temperatures will be rising in both these races soon enough.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (662) 325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.

Sid Salter