Voters watched Republican Sen. Roger Wicker and former Democrat Gov. Ronnie Musgrove contrast the two campaigns during their debate at the Mississippi College School of Law.

"The insiders and special interests are running Washington DC," said Musgrove while accusing his opponent of "pay-to-play" politics. "Insiders are getting what they want...one of the things I will do is not do the lobbyist bidding."

Wicker retorted, "I was a member of the House of Representatives, I recall that Mr. Musgrove came to my office and lobbied me," Wicker said. "I think the person who received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the beef plant swindlers...is not the person to send to Washington to clean up the special interest problem."

Musgrove proclaimed himself a Mississippi Democrat, "I can stand up and represent the conservative values of Mississippi in Washington...not some party." When asked who he supported for President, Musgrove said, "I'm supporting my party's nominee." Wicker responded he was supporting John McCain and, "Maybe during the rebuttal, Mr. Musgrove will be able to bring himself to actually utter the words 'Barack Obama.'" Musgrove was not willing to do that.

John Johnson of Meridian's WTOK referenced the Democrats' most effective attack, "Mr. Wicker, did you vote nine times for a pay raise?" Wicker responded, "I did not." Wicker offered a congressional report showing the last pay raise vote occurred years before he was sworn-in. Musgrove said newspapers recorded Wicker votes as pay raise votes. Each candidate questioned each other's honesty, setting up the final two questions.

Brad Kessie of WLOX in Biloxi asked, "Instead of throwing mud at each other, why hasn't this campaign been about issues, and why tonight aren't you talking about the issues of today and tomorrow, and why are you talking about the past?"

Musgrove said, "We're answering the questions you ask us." Wicker said, "Well, what we've done in the past can be instructive of what we're do in the future." Both men are correct.

First, campaigns are responding to the needs of the press. Don't fault the press, newspapers don't sell advertising reporting stories no one reads. Who wants to read about the seventeen pieces of complex and technical legislation Wicker introduced this year? Folks would much rather read about "mud slinging" so newspapers and televisions report "mud slinging" so candidates "mud sling." If people wanted to read about the issues, then the media would report about the issues, and campaigns would talk about the issues. Call it "free market campaigning" that doesn't need a free speech bailout.

Second, records are fair game. Talking about your opponent's record may be negative campaigning, but it is almost a duty to voters to expose records when public watchdogs fail to do so. How can Musgrove make a case that voters need to hire him if he doesn't make the case they should fire Wicker? How can Wicker make the case he is better for the job if he doesn't contrast his own record with Musgrove's history?

Still, people like to complain about negative campaigning, as does the press. The next question came from Terry Smith of WTVA in Tupelo. He spoke about the "aggressively negative" campaigning and third-party ads that are "downright nasty" and asked, "How can you sleep at night knowing those ads are running about your opponent who was at one time your roommate?"

Wicker responded, "Well of course I campaign mighty hard all day long and I'm kind of tired at night so I can sleep" drawing laughter from the otherwise silent crowd. Wicker said, "Actually on several occasions, we've contacted your station, explained to them that in some jurisdictions these false ads were demonstrated to be, and taken down, but stations have continued to air them nonetheless. I'm certainly going to fight back and everything I put on the air is documented."

Musgrove said he and Wicker can't do anything about third party advertisements but he can speak for his own advertisements, "From day one we have talked about the issues, where we've disagreed and I thought that's what a campaign was supposed to...from day one, we have talked about the issues, to me the issues are important, I haven't been into all these personal attacks."

I went back to Musgrove's speech on day one of his campaign. An Associated Press story reported, "Within moments of announcing his candidacy on Monday, Musgrove started attacking Wicker's congressional record." His kick-off speech attacked Wicker by name 16 times and he dedicated a third of his speech to Wicker, more than he reserved for his own record as Governor.

A forum discusses issues; a debate contrasts candidates. The contrasts were clear: a choice between Democratic-Party-supporting, beef-plant-loving, Washington lobbyist Ronnie Musgrove; and pay-raise-voting, special-interest-toting, heavy sleeper Roger Wicker. The candidates also spoke about Iraq, the economy, and Katrina recovery, but who wants to read about that?

Brian Perry of Jackson, a former congressional aide, is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.