WASHINGTON — Three decades ago, it was nearly impossible for the Mississippi Republican Party to find candidates to run for office, let alone get them elected.
But today three of the most powerful Republicans in the country hail from the Magnolia State: the two contenders for the post of Senate majority leader, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, and national party chairman Haley Barbour.
Their emergence on the top rungs of the GOP ladder underscores how far the Republican Party has come in Mississippi and the growing influence of the South in American politics.
But it also reflects the savvy that politicians must develop to win election there in the first place. In this state, where politics is an art form and a passion, public careers are made and lost on the campus of the University of Mississippi, where traditions like cheerleading tryouts and fraternity rushes carry political significance.
According to University of Mississippi political scientist Marvin Overby, politicians like Mr. Cochran and Mr. Lott have prospered by using their Mississippi skills to schmooze colleagues in the cloakroom. They have also benefitted from an influx of members who share their brand of conservatism.
More than that, many of the "traditional" values of Mississippi and the South are something that Americans in general, and Republicans in particular, are returning to. "Back in the 1960s, when you made generalizations about America, you would say they were true 'except for the South,' " he says. "Today we say most generalizations are true 'especially in the South.'"
Later this month, GOP senators will decide whether Lott or Cochran succeeds current majority leader Bob Dole. Lott is the clear favorite. The contest is, most observers agree, a matter of style over substance. Lott, to whom Speaker Gingrich refers as his mentor, is more confrontational than Cochran. Both men have nearly identical voting records and enjoy enormous popularity back home.
Although Lott and Cochran insist they have a warm relationship, they are longtime rivals. The tension began in 1978, when both were members of the House. After longtime Democratic Sen. James Eastland announced his retirement, Cochran decided to seek the seat while Lott declined. As a result, Cochran became the first GOP senator from Mississippi since Reconstruction, and Lott toiled in the House 12 years before joining him.
Yet Lott gained the upper hand last year by successfully challenging veteran Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming for the majority whip post, effectively leapfrogging Cochran in the Senate leadership.
DESPITE the rivalry, the two have much in common. All Mississippi's Republican stars, including Lott, Cochran, Mr. Barbour, and even last year's president of the House freshman class - Rep. Roger Wicker - attended the University of Mississippi at Oxford. This is no accident. William Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, says "Ole Miss" has long been the engine of the state's political machine.
Although Lott and Cochran did not overlap completely at Ole Miss, they followed similar paths. Both joined fraternities and held campuswide office. Both continued on to law school there, and both were elected to the cheerleading squad - an honor that reflects an Ole Miss student's political promise as much as his aptitude with a megaphone.
"There's a long tradition of politics within this university," Mr. Ferris says. "Both Lott and Cochran were part of a highly charged social network. They came through a grooming process as undergraduates that is clearly designed to lead those who were successful to the highest elected offices in the Senate and the nation."
Indeed, Mississippi boasts a long roster of prominent politicians ranging from Jefferson Davis, president of the confederacy, to legendary Sens. Eastland and John Stennis, and longtime House Appropriations Committee chair Jamie Whitten - all of whom showered the state with federal money.
Yet these men were Democrats. When Lott and Cochran attended Ole Miss, Ferris notes, segregation battles were rampant, and students rioted over the admission of blacks. The future senators joined the first wave of white Southerners who strayed from the Democratic fold.
In the last two decades, Republicans slowly forged a campaign apparatus spearheaded by ambitious politicians like Lott, Cochran, and Barbour. "We kept losing elections, but gradually we would win one here, and come close somewhere else," remembers Will Feltus, a Mississippi native who now serves as staff director of the Senate GOP Conference. "When Thad and Trent were elected to Congress in 1972, it was like water trickling through. Sooner or later, the dam burst."
Lott and Cochran have worked to dispel the GOP's country-club image in Mississippi. Lott travels the state in an old pickup. Cochran courts black voters. Apparently, these early political lessons, and the Mississippi experience itself, have served them well. "Both Trent and Thad came out of this hot forge of local and state politics," Ferris says. "If you can survive that, you can make it anywhere."