Abortion: A challenging year

Mississippi state flag Two recent articles in the New York Times highlight a trend that hasn't gotten much press attention so far this year: an almost unheard of number of anti-abortion challengers running as Democrats.

In this election, the Democrats have not only courted but offered strong financial support to candidates who run on anti-abortion platforms in areas long considered Republican redoubts.

The first article addresses abortion only in passing, as writer Adam Nossiter examines the Senate campaign of former Democratic Governor Ronnie Musgrove.

The other story, written by Raymond Hernadez, analyzes the evolution of the Democratic Party's move to welcome anti-abortion candidates. I want to give that article its due, and will discuss it in my second post.

Both stories illuminate the volatility of this election year, when the only safety lies in expected the unexpected.

Nossiter's article is redolent with Southern atmosphere.

My chief criticism is that, as so often happens, there's more space given to the rat-a-tat of the battle between the candidates, complete with compelling adjectives, than to a substantial examination of their beliefs and what drives them.

The story opens with this memorable anecdote.

As a Democrat running for the Senate in the Republican stronghold of Mississippi, Ronnie Musgrove faces a challenge that was summed up in the angry words of a middle-aged white voter doing business at the courthouse here this week.

"I wouldn't vote for him if he was the last man on earth," said Roger Case, an employee of a fire-extinguisher company, as Mr. Musgrove campaigned a few yards away.

Blacks in the courthouse beamed at Mr. Musgrove, a lanky former governor; his fellow whites, however, mostly looked the other way.

In a piece that spotlights the phenomenon of having a Democrat run a competitive campaign in one of the nation's most conservative, "insular" states, Nossiter only alludes to Musgrove's anti-abortion stance in passing.

Mr. Musgrove -- 52, conservative, anti-abortion, pro-gun, the son of a road-crew worker who died of pneumonia when the candidate was 7 -- calls himself a "Mississippi Democrat" to separate himself from the national party. But he carries the albatross that led to his failure to win re-election as governor in 2003: he supported ridding the Mississippi flag of its Confederate emblem.

Many Mississippi white voters hated the idea and turned out in force to defeat it in a referendum, and they have not forgotten.

"I ain't voting for him," said Kerry Epperson, a supervisor at U.P.S. who was having lunch at a fried-fish restaurant as Mr. Musgrove went table-to-table nearby. "I didn't like the way he run as governor. I didn't like the way he handled the flag issue."

Mr. Wicker is making sure the flag issue stays on voters' minds, running a ubiquitous television advertisement that says Mr. Musgrove "tried to kill our state flag." At the fish-fry rally for the Republican, an outsized flag, Confederate heraldry intact, presided over the room. On the highway into Jackson, billowing, gargantuan Mississippi and American flags fly over a giant banner promoting the ticket of the Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, and Mr. McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin.

Dare I say that there is another ghost here, along with the unexamined anti-abortion allusion? It is the possibility that so-called "values voters," may choose to vote for Musgrove because of his stance on the flag issue --or not.

This is not a "man bites dog" story of a pro-abortion rights candidate racking up the poll numbers in a bastion of Southern conservatism. As does the article by Hernandez, the Musgrove story reinforces the sense that politics is local -- for the most part --usually --by and large ...

What's remarkable about this year, as Nossiter points out, is the potential power of the national economic crisis and a surge in voter registrations to upend the status quo.

Mr. Musgrove, for his part, avoids mentioning the Democratic nominee for president, Senator Barack Obama, but does connect his Republican opponent at every opportunity with hated "Washington" -- his own term of derision, and one he is betting has potency in a climate of fear that has penetrated even in an insular state that for generations has considered itself immune to national trends.

"Washington told Wall Street, 'We're going to let y'all regulate yourselves,' " Mr. Musgrove told bleary-eyed students at Millsaps College here one recent morning. "The Republicans were in charge. They never said a word."

Privately, some Democratic insiders still give the edge to Mr. Wicker, in a state where the word "liberal" is still the most potent scarecrow of all. Still, the new voters make the equation an uncertain one.

What part does Musgrove's anti-abortion stance play? Hard to tell.

But if he does win in a state where the odds initially seemed stacked against him, he will add to the ranks of anti-abortion Democrats-still a small number, but one that has the possibility of multiplying itself in this unpredictable election year.

That would be quite a story.

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