Musgrove, Barbour Snipe At Each Other In Final Debate

Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and Republican challenger Haley Barbour accused each other Monday night of avoiding issues during a final pre-election debate at the WLOX Studios in Biloxi.

"He's running from his record like a scalded dog,'' Barbour said of Musgrove.

The governor countered by saying Barbour is a "multimillionaire Washington lobbyist'' who wants to cover up a record of working for tobacco companies.

"He put on his smoke screen, both figuratively and literally, to hide from his record,'' Musgrove said.

The hourlong debate Monday night took place in the studio of WLOX-Channel 13 in Biloxi, and the station aired the program live across south Mississippi.

With a studio audience of about 30 people invited by the campaigns, Monday's debate had a calmer, more controlled environment than one last week before an audience of about 1,100 at Delta State University in Cleveland. The Delta State debate was interrupted three times by Green Party hecklers.

During closing statements last week, Barbour scolded Musgrove for running TV commercials saying Barbour had worked for tobacco companies that tried to "poison'' children.

Barbour was asked Monday if he had lost his temper at Delta State. Barbour said he had not. He said Musgrove had failed to defend a commercial that has since been slammed in newspaper editorials around the state.

Barbour said Musgrove must be worried about his own campaign's poll numbers as the Nov. 4 election approaches.

"People see through that desperation,'' Barbour said. "They also see what kind of trashy thing it is to say.''

Musgrove on Monday defended his TV ad that criticized Barbour's work for tobacco companies, saying it's based on facts. Musgrove also said his own mother had died of lung cancer from smoking.

After last week's debate, Musgrove said Barbour had lost control and had shown he didn't have the temperament to be governor.

"I'm glad to see tonight that he's much more under control,'' Musgrove said.

Both candidates said Monday that they oppose raising any kind of taxes, including those on casinos that employ thousands along the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River.

Barbour said Mississippi needs comprehensive changes to the civil justice system. Musgrove said he was the only governor to call a special session for lawmakers to address tort reform.

Legislators were in session 83 days last fall and, among other things, approved caps on non-economic damages for things such as pain and suffering.

Musgrove said lawmakers stayed in Jackson "way too long for what they did,'' adding that he wants them to limit where civil suits can be filed, to establish a board that would review the merits of medical malpractice suits and to crack down on "frivolous'' lawsuits.

Barbour said after Musgrove called the special session last year, the governor "disappeared for 12 weeks.'' The Republican said he would work for tort reform from the first day he takes office, if he wins the election.

Two other gubernatorial candidates - the Reform Party's Shawn O'Hara and the Constitution Party's John Thomas Cripps - picketed outside WLOX on Monday, saying they should have been invited to debate. Supporters of the Green Party's Sherman Lee Dillon also picketed.

During interviews before Monday's debate, some south Mississippi voters said they would choose a favorite in the election based on candidates' positions on jobs, schools, roads and taxes.

Doug DeSilvey of Biloxi, a civilian engineering technician who oversees construction of Navy vessels at Northrop Grumman Ship Systems in Pascagoula, said he's a Barbour supporter. DeSilvey, 57, said he thinks Barbour's experience as a Washington lobbyist and former Republican National Committee chairman will help Mississippi.

"It's all about the contacts and who you know as you try to get stuff for the state,'' said DeSilvey, who also works in security for a Biloxi casino.

Jeana Shaw, 39, who has homes in Gulfport and rural Hancock County, said she'll probably vote for Musgrove because she doesn't like the tone of Barbour's ads. She said Barbour unfairly accuses Musgrove of costing the state jobs over the past four years.

"I just don't like any of it,'' Shaw, who holds down jobs with Weight Watchers and at her in-laws' fish house, said of Barbour's ads. "It just really turns me off.''

Barbour and Musgrove also debated Sept. 29 at Belhaven College in Jackson and Oct. 6 at Mississippi State University in Starkville.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)