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Since being tapped by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) on the last day of 2007 to fill the Senate seat of former Minority Whip Trent Lott (R), Roger Wicker (R) has been on a touring blitz through all four Congressional districts in the Magnolia State.

Last week, the former 1st district Congressman made two appearances in the Gulf Coast-based 4th district. He also completed a four-city fly-through that included appearances in the 2nd and 3rd districts and a welcome home rally in his hometown of Tupelo.

And today, with former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) scheduled to announce in Jackson that he is joining the special election race to fill the remainder of Lott’s term, Wicker will set off on a weeklong bus trip across the state.

Along with celebrating the realization of his long-held goal of serving in the Senate, Wicker’s statewide tours are serving as important “meet and greet” sessions for many voters who are hearing his name for the first time.

According to Mississippi political insiders and some early data collected by one Democratic polling firm last month, Wicker’s biggest obstacle to winning the upcoming special election will be building name recognition outside the northeastern Hill Country and northwest farmlands of the 1st district, where he served seven terms as a Congressman.

The challenge is all the more urgent now that Musgrove is in the open special race. A Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll of likely voters in early December found that Musgrove, who served one term as governor before being defeated by Barbour in 2003, led Wicker 48 percent to 34 percent.

But Wicker said Friday that he believes “we’ve already taken a chunk out of that name ID lead in the past week. … The initial response has been very encouraging, the coverage has been everything we could have hoped for.”

Wicker added that he would “not have taken the appointment if I weren’t willing to campaign hard” and that on his upcoming bus tour “we’ll cover a lot of ground from one end of the state to the other.”

Despite it also serving as Musgrove’s home base, Wicker likely will have his strongest support in the 1st district, where he served in the state Senate before his 14 years in the U.S. House. The Mississippi Delta, with its black-majority population and Democratic voting pattern, will probably not be strong for Wicker, but that likely will be balanced by his showing in Rep. Chip Pickering’s (R) strongly Republican 3rd district. That means the Gulf Coast 4th district, which lies farthest from Wicker’s base, could be a battleground in the special election. The 4th votes reliably Republican in presidential races but has elected conservative Democrat Gene Taylor to Congress for 10 terms.

Another reason Wicker isn’t wasting any time getting around the state is because there’s still a very real possibility that his special election could be held in mid-March rather than on the same day as the November general election, which is when Barbour has scheduled it.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood (D) filed a complaint in the Hinds County Circuit Court last week asking the state court to rule that Barbour’s plan violates state law. Hood’s reading of the law would force the governor to hold a special election within three months.

Mississippi election law states that after the governor receives an official notice of a Senate vacancy, he has 10 days to announce an election to fill the seat. The election must then be held within 90 days of the announcement, unless the vacancy occurs during a year when “there shall be held a general state or Congressional election.”

Barbour has called the statute poorly written, but he said his plan follows the law.

Legal opinion aside, political analysts have speculated that an earlier special election could help the Democratic candidate because it would allow less time for Wicker to solidify his position in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Democrats also may be at a disadvantage if the special election is included on the same ballot as the presidential election in November, when the Republican nominee is expected to win in Mississippi. In addition, some Democratic strategists have taken issue with the fact that Barbour’s November election plan still maintains a Jan. 11 filing deadline. They argue that Barbour kept the filing deadline early — 10 months before an open election that will not have a primary — because he wants to keep other candidates out of the race now that his preferred candidate, Wicker, has been tapped.

Fellow Mississippi GOP Sen. Thad Cochran, who is also up for re-election this year, said Friday that most people in Mississippi see Hood’s complaint as simply a political tactic.

“They think the attorney general is trying to help a prospective Democrat be more competitive,” Cochran said. “They are afraid that if Roger has almost a year between now and November to serve in the Senate he will be harder to beat than with an earlier election.”

But Cochran added that Wicker is “traveling the state already at full speed and I’m sure he will be elected whenever the election occurs. … He does have enthusiastic support from me as well as the governor and others from the state who have known him well over the years.”

For his part, Wicker clearly hopes to play up his political relationship to Cochran and Lott, who during a combined 50 years in the Senate have been symbols of the GOP’s recent dominance in the deep South.

“I’m the kind of mainstream Mississippi conservative that the state responds to,” Wicker said. “I have been a Member of Congress in the mold of Thad Cochran and Trent Lott and I think the voters will see that in the end.”

Wicker brings about $600,000 from his House war chest to his Senate campaign.

The loyal party man who has given large sums to various Congressional colleagues over the years said Friday that he is “intensely making finance phone calls which is, for better or worse, part of the drill.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said Friday that “the Mississippi Senate seat is a top priority for the committee and Sen. Wicker will have the resources necessary to ensure his election.”

But Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matthew Miller said that with the DSCC maintaining a healthy cash advantage over the NRSC — the DSCC counted $25.5 million in cash on hand at the end of November, while the NRSC had $10.4 million — that promise doesn’t mean a whole lot.

“The fact that they are even having to defend this seat is just another huge problem for Senate Republicans,” Miller said. “They already faced a map where they were playing almost exclusively on defense and now they have to dedicate scarce resources to a seat in the deep South.”

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