Former Democrat Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is leading Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker 48 percent to 40 percent in his challenge to unseat the former House member, a poll released last week by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee shows.

Coupled with a Democrat thumping in Mississippi's First Congressional District, - the seat Wicker held - Democrats are touting this poll as evidence they're on track to knock off a Republican senatorial seat in Mississippi.

But once you move below the top line of the poll results, the math is less productive for the Democrats.

Musgrove's unfavorable numbers are 30 percent while Wicker's are only 14 percent.

Musgrove has run statewide three times. He won twice. The third time he earned more votes in a competitive statewide general election than anyone except the candidate who beat him, Haley Barbour.

While in actuality he is the challenger, politically speaking, Musgrove has to be considered the effective incumbent.

An incumbent should not be happy with polling numbers indicating him under the election threshold with a third of the electorate sure to vote against him.

Perhaps this is why his campaign subtracted those numbers from his web site's coverage of the poll.

Musgrove lacks space in the electorate to redefine himself beyond his 2003 defeat for re-election as governor. Only five percent of those polled did not recognize him, and the Wicker campaign will surely remind voters why they rejected Musgrove five years ago.

What about the actual incumbent? Barbour appointed Wicker to fulfill the unexpired term of Trent Lott in January, and as the incumbent he, too, is below 50 percent in re-elect.

Yet he is running only a few points behind Musgrove when 30 percent of voters did not even recognize Wicker and another 14 percent recognized him but could not rate him.

Wicker is in a position to shape his identity and message to nearly half of the electorate (44 percent) - much in Republican areas like the Coast and East Mississippi. Those numbers add up to a promising future.

That the DSCC bought, paid for and released this poll does not make it inherently inaccurate. But I'm going to borrow a point from the man who beat Musgrove.

During the 2007 campaign, whenever the press asked Gov. Barbour about his poll numbers, he would tell them he paid a lot of money to his pollsters for that information, "so why would I give it to y'all for free?"

You get what you pay for and the DSCC is giving it up for free.

Polls are strategic tools of a campaign. Polling allows a campaign to see whether messages are resonating, voters are responding, and where a campaign should focus attention. Releasing a poll to the public is also a strategic decision used to increase support and boost campaign contributions. Musgrove needs such hope with his anemic fundraising.

Wicker has raised $3 million while Musgrove reports closer to $450,000. Musgrove will need money to compete and right now, his poll numbers are riding his past name penetration. Wicker will use his funds to court voters statewide and seek support similar to his popularity in his own district in the northeast corner of the state.

His district is where Democrats gleefully point to their victory with Travis Childers as evidence of a resurgence that jeopardizes Wicker's Senate bid. This neglects one obvious and critical point: Wicker would have won that district.

Childers, with his rural appeal and conservative values, might be able to beat a generic suburban Republican like Greg Davis; but he would have failed to defeat Wicker.

In a statewide race, Democrats can count on the Delta (where they hope Obama will multiply turnout) and are strong in the southwest; Republicans play well on the Coast and are effective in the east. There is division in the capital metro area with Madison-Rankin ferociously for the GOP and Hinds a Democratic bastion. That leaves the battleground as Northeast Mississippi. Democrats claim the land as Childers Country. True, but after 13 years of popular congressional service, it is more so Wicker Country. The critical point is if it is not Musgrove Country, then the electoral math gets very difficult for the former governor in November.

In any campaign, both sides will spin a poll. Ultimately, you always want to be ahead of your opponent and there is no spinning that. But the DSCC poll shows that in a race between Musgrove - a three time statewide campaigner - and Wicker, Musgrove leads only by four points outside the margin of error, has high negatives, and little prospective growth.

Meanwhile, Wicker is competitive despite being unknown to a large share of the electorate.

In 2008, conventional wisdom says Democrats should have every advantage in winning this senate seat. But the math and the voters in Wicker's home district actually add up to a Republican win in November.

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