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Miss. governor race eyed as '04 harbinger

JACKSON, Miss. -- Republican powerbroker Haley Barbour is counting on his Washington connections to help him get elected governor of Mississippi today in a race that could serve as a test of President Bush's popularity in the Deep South going into 2004.

Polls indicate the contest between Barbour and Governor Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, is too close to call.

Kentucky also will elect a governor today, with Representative Ernie Fletcher, a Republican, leading in the polls against Attorney General Ben Chandler, a Democrat. Houston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco are holding elections for mayor.

The gubernatorial elections are seen as a bellwether for the 2004 presidential race, and they could give the GOP control of two states that have long elected Democratic governors.

Bush made campaign swings through Mississippi and Kentucky on Saturday. Other GOP leaders, including Vice President Dick Cheney and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani have also visited Mississippi to campaign for Barbour.

Musgrove and Barbour crisscrossed the state yesterday in last-minute efforts to energize their bases. The race is the most expensive in Mississippi history. Finance reports filed last week showed Barbour had raised $10.6 million and Musgrove $8.5 million.

Barbour, a Mississippi native and longtime Washington lobbyist, was Republican National Committee chairman from 1993 to 1997. He says Mississippi has suffered from a weak economy and budget deficits under Musgrove.

Musgrove has portrayed Barbour as being out of touch with Mississippi. The governor's ads do not use the word Democrat. Instead, Musgrove is billed as "independent" and "conservative."

In Kentucky, Chandler planned to campaign 24 hours nonstop. The winner will succeed term-limited Governor Paul Patton, a Democrat.

In other elections today, voters could break the Republican-Democratic tie in New Jersey's state Senate, and Virginia and Mississippi will hold legislative elections. Voters will decide on gambling issues in Maine, Indiana, and Colorado; mass transit in Houston, Tucson, and Kansas City, Mo.; and an antistress proposal in Denver.

In New York City, voters will decide whether to eliminate party primaries and replace them with nonpartisan runoffs in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would advance to the general election. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, spent at least $2 million of his own money to support the measure. Democrats oppose the change, fearing it would weaken their influence in a city where they outnumber Republicans 5 to 1.

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