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Obama Leads in Mississippi Democratic Primary

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Polls are closing in Mississippi, the lone state to hold presidential primaries today. At this point, Barack Obama is leading Hillary Clinton, according to exit polls. We're still waiting for exact results. The Magnolia State usually votes late in the primary season and has been reliably Republican in the general election over the last three decades. So it hasn't traditional been a player in the nomination race. But the tight Democratic race drew both Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to Mississippi to campaign.

We'll be joined by NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving in a moment but first, NPR's Audie Cornish joins us now from Jackson, Mississippi. She's at Hal and Mel's Pub(ph) - that's a gathering point for the Obama campaign primary watch party tonight.

Audie, thanks so much for being with us.

AUDIE CORNISH: Hi there.

NORRIS: Now, you followed the candidate this past week, what issues did he use to try to appeal to Mississippi voters?

CORNISH: Well, both Clinton and Senator Barack Obama were very much talking about the economy. There are large stretches of impoverished areas in Mississippi, and job creation and generation is very much an issue, as is health care. I really did speak to countless voters who talked about not having any. And so those issues which have been centerpieces for the campaigns were very well-received here.

NORRIS: What are we expecting in terms of turnout in Mississippi?

CORNISH: Well, Mississippi was a little bit taken by surprise by all of this. They are not usually big players in the primary race, and there's a sense that it will be a little bit higher than it is normally. It's definitely estimated to be higher than it was in 2004. It's not expected to break records the way it has maybe in some other Southern states that have voted so far this season.

NORRIS: Audie, just quickly, before we let you go, black Mississippians make up a large percentage of the Democratic voters in the state. According to your reporting and what you're seeing in the early polling, was there a racial or gender split among voters?

CORNISH: The racial split that we saw in other Southern states is exacerbated here in Mississippi, where race is often an issue when it comes to politics. It's so far it's (unintelligible) that there are the majority of blacks who did turn out, went for Senator Barack Obama but that the overall turnout of black Americans is not necessarily so high or record turnout that's one from the Obama campaign might be hoping for. And also that white votes are going pretty much en masse in the direction of Hillary Clinton which a little further along then we've seen in other states and (unintelligible) as well.

NORRIS: Audie Cornish, thanks so much.

CORNISH: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was Audie Cornish speaking to us from Jackson, Mississippi. We turn now to Ron Elving. He's here in the studio with me.

And Ron, leading up to this week, there was an interesting back-and-forth between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over the question of who will serve as vice president in this campaign and who would actually, you know, vice president, I guess, to whom would be the question.

RON ELVING: Yes, Michele, the Clintons began talking about a dream ticket and making clear that they expected Hillary Clinton to head that ticket. And it took several days before Barack Obama instead of just sort of politely say, well, that's pretty premature, to then come out as he did today and say, look, it doesn't make any sense when you're in second place in delegates to be offering second place to the person who is in the first place.

NORRIS: Now, he is expected to do very well in Mississippi. How is he - with that expected win in Mississippi, will he hope to quiet that discussion?

ELVING: No, I think that Mississippi is not going to be a large enough win for him. Although we do expect him to win, it won't do much to quiet the controversies that are raging back and forth between these two campaigns. Although it may be enough if he wins three-fifths or two-thirds of the vote, it may be enough to earn him enough delegates that between this and Wyoming, he will have equalized the amount of that number of delegates that Hillary Clinton got out of last Tuesday's victories.

NORRIS: Now, as we said, Mississippi is a reliably Republican state. Is there evidence that we might see some crossover voting, that Republicans might be casting votes for Barack Obama?

ELVING: Haven't seen real evidence of that yet, and there's a lot of doubt being cast on whether or not, given a couple of tight congressional primaries down there, the Republicans would be inclined to do that. But in some parts of the state, the white voters are a little larger than expected as a percentage of the Democratic total, and the black voters are a little smaller than expected. That could - just as a hint - be an indication that there is some crossover coming from independents and Republicans who are white.

NORRIS: So you know, there's still a big prize ahead on April 22nd in Pennsylvania but for now, help us, you know, put this in perspective, what a Mississippi win or even a strong showing by Hillary Clinton would mean in this race?

ELVING: If she could equalize the vote in a state like Mississippi, it might have two effects. One, it could lessen some of the racial tension of this particular confrontation at the moment. The other effect it would have would be to keep him from adding, as he's been doing, in these smaller states to his delegate lead - which is still substantial enough to make it hard to see how she's going to win a majority or even a plurality of the pledged delegates going to the convention.

NORRIS: Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: That was NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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