Jackson, Miss. — Mississippi usually marches to its own drummer, and this election year is no exception.
Like other states, Mississippi faces hard times. Cotton and soy bean farmers are harvesting gigantic crops at staggering losses. Unemployment rose above 12 percent here before the national rate reached double digits.
But such dreary news has not made the state's US Senate race part of a national referendum on Reaganomics. In fact, the two contenders both praise the President and ask for more time to let his policies work.
The real issue in Mississippi this year is simply whether the voters will reelect the dean of the Senate, John C. Stennis, a Democrat who first took office in 1947 and who is asking for another six-year term. The man who once chaired the powerful Senate Armed Forces and Appropriations Committees is testing tradition in the ''Hospitality State,'' which almost never tosses out an incumbent. His opponent is Yazoo City lawyer Haley Barbour.
''I wanted to continue to serve,'' explains the senator, adding, ''I couldn't find a place to stop.'' Dressed in his usual senatorial attire, dark suit and crisp white shirt, Senator Stennis looks very much his part as the ''gentleman politician'' as he welcomes visitors into his hotel suite between campaign stops.
Despite his long career in Congress, campaigning is new to Stennis. ''I didn't have to do anything,'' he recalls of his previous reelection campaigns. ''One year I spent just $3,000.'' He paid the money from his own pocket.
This year is definitely different. His campaign expects to spend close to $ 800,000 to convince Mississippi voters that their 81-year-old senator has built up experience and seniority that are too valuable to lose. And Stennis, who says he feels as energetic as he did at 60, is traveling up and down the state to deliver the message personally.
Mr. Barbour, the man forcing Stennis into action, is a former state Republican official whose political ideas are almost identical to the incumbent's. ''There is no vast philosophical difference,'' he says. ''We're talking about two conservatives and two Reagan supporters.''
Barbour has studied polls indicating most voters are ready for Stennis to retire. ''Nobody's mad at John Stennis,'' says Barbour, who directs only the mildest of barbs at his opponent. He argues it's time for a change. And while he does not directly mention the age issue, a less-than-subtle campaign slogan calls Barbour a ''senator for the '80s.''
Ironically, Barbour's own relative youth is an issue. At a recent realtors' meeting in Jackson, one questioner, pointing to Barbour's age (35 this month), challenged him, ''How could you expect to replace a man who has enough seniority to get his own cot in the cloakroom?''
''It's a good time for a change,'' shot back Barbour, pointing out that the Republicans have taken control of the Senate, so Stennis is no longer a committee chairman. ''We can make a change and start building seniority for the future.''
Bill Minor, columnist and longtime observer of Mississippi politics, says voters are ready for a change. ''There is really not any enthusiasm for John Stennis in general.''
The exceptions are areas such as Pascagoula, home of a naval shipyard secured by the efforts of Senator Stennis, and the thousands of Mississippians whose jobs depend on military or NASA contracts he delivered to the state. However, beyond those contracts, Stennis has not built a political operation in his home state.
''Stennis has just a few friends,'' says Mr. Minor. But, he adds, people don't see Barbour as an alternative because he has no record and has never held office.
One group that has never expressed enthusiasm about Stennis is the black community. Although never espousing the racist themes of many of his contemporaries, the senator has a history of trying to block civil rights legislation.
Recently he has changed his course, taking two steps that could win black votes. He has endorsed State Rep. Robert Clark, the first black to be nominated for the US Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction. And he voted for the recent renewal of the Voting Rights Act, a law he once adamantly opposed.
Barbour, who is behind in the polls but maintains that he's catching up, has about three weeks and a $1 million campaign chest to prove he can stop Stennis.