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Fleming runs low-budget Miss. challenge of Cochran

Saturday, October 18, 2008

JACKSON, Miss. —  It was hard enough running against entrenched Republican U.S. Sen. Trent Lott two years ago with little help from national Democrats. This time around, former state lawmaker Erik Fleming is challenging a 36-year Washington veteran so well known that his campaign signs simply read "Thad."

That would be Thad Cochran, Mississippi's silver-haired senior U.S. senator. At 70, he's the ranking Republican member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and has helped bring billions of dollars to his home state, one of the poorest in the nation. He's poised to easily win another six-year term.

Political scientist Steve Rozman said Fleming _ who has no paid staff and drives himself to campaign events when he can afford gas for his Hyundai _ would need an unusual alignment of events to win in Mississippi, a politically conservative state with a long history of returning incumbents to Washington.

"The only thing that would elevate Erik Fleming at this point would be a tremendous disillusionment on the part of white voters so they don't even come out," said Rozman, director of the Center for Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility at Tougaloo College.

Fleming is black, as are about 37 percent of all Mississippians. Although Mississippi has dozens of black state lawmakers and one of its four U.S. House members is black, a black candidate has never won statewide office. Hiram Revels, a black Republican, was a U.S. senator from Mississippi for about a year, starting in 1870. But he was chosen by the Reconstruction-era state Legislature. U.S. senators were first elected by popular vote in 1913.

Fleming is hoping for a bump if Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama increases black voter turnout in Mississippi. But Cochran's appeal cuts across lines of race and party. He has had several black staff members and makes appearances at events that attract diverse crowds, including the grand opening last month of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola.

Mississippi lost significant influence on Capitol Hill when its junior senator, Lott, retired abruptly last December to become a lobbyist. He had been in Washington since 1972 _ the first 16 years in the House _ and was barely a year into his fourth Senate term.

The fierce special election to replace him, between Democratic former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and Republican former U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker, who was temporarily appointed to fill the seat, has far overshadowed the Fleming-Cochran race.

Cochran told The Associated Press he is "very firm" in planning to serve the full six years if he wins Nov. 4.

"That's my intention. I hope I'm healthy throughout the six years and can function effectively," said Cochran, an attorney.

Fleming, 43, got no financial help from his national party when he challenged Lott two years ago, and he said he's getting only $15,000 from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this year. He said he believes, despite the odds, that his shoestring campaign will combine with voters' anger about Republican economic policies and give him enough momentum to defeat Cochran.

"I've told some of the faithful that we may not have the fastest boat, but we've got the biggest sail," said Fleming, who served nine years in the state House before losing his re-election bid in 2007. He's on leave from his job as a paralegal with the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance.

In a year when the Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, is railing against earmarks for congressional pet projects, Cochran is unapologetic about having steered billions of dollars to Mississippi. He was chairman of Appropriations until Republicans lost their Senate majority two years ago.

"I'm not ashamed of doing that when I think it is something that is worthy of public support and that will benefit our state," Cochran said. "I'm happy to work as a member of the Appropriations Committee to make sure we get our fair share of federal support."

Cochran is supporting McCain, but only after having endorsed two other Republicans who eventually dropped out of the presidential race. His first choice was former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. His second was former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

Cochran told The Boston Globe in January that he worried about the possibility of McCain becoming president.

"The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine," Cochran told the newspaper. "He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me."

Now, Cochran has publicly endorsed McCain and said he put his name on a list of senators willing to campaign for the Republican nominee.

"I don't know whether they will call me," Cochran told the AP.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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