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Gubernatorial candidate not going for ‘nice guy’

Republican Tate Reeves was a 29-year-old banker and political novice when he won his first statewide office in Mississippi in 2003. After two terms as treasurer and the next two as lieutenant governor, Reeves now has his sights set on becoming governor.

To advance to the Nov. 5 general election ballot and face four-term Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood for the state’s highest office, Reeves must first win his own party’s nomination. Doing so will require overcoming an obstacle of his own making: a reputation as a hard-nosed politician who’s not afraid to make enemies.

Teachers upset about tight education budgets gave him the silent treatment when he appeared before them this the summer. Roadbuilders say his fondness for frugality has left the state with crumbling highways and perilous bridges.

Reeves, 45, is competing in a Republican primary runoff today against Bill Waller Jr., 67, a retired chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court. Waller, who has a courtly demeanor and an easy smile, is also a retired brigadier general in the Mississippi National Guard and son of the late Gov. Bill Waller Sr., a moderate Democrat who served from 1972 to 1976.

Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky are the only states electing governors this year, and Mississippi has the only race without an incumbent. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant is limited to two terms, and he’s endorsing Reeves. Hood is trying to become Mississippi’s first Democratic governor since Ronnie Musgrove was unseated in 2003, but that’s a tough challenge in a conservative state that Donald Trump won comfortably in the 2016 presidential election.

In the Aug. 6 Republican primary, Reeves received 49 percent to Waller’s 33 percent. The third-place candidate, state Rep. Robert Foster, has endorsed Waller.

Reeves, who is spending more than Waller on the campaign, carried 74 of the state’s 82 counties in the primary, but lost close to home.

“He failed to carry his precinct,” Waller said in an interview Wednesday. “He failed to carry his county. I think that’s significant.”

Waller has a TV ad portraying himself as the adult in the race while a child who resembles Reeves, wearing khaki pants and blue dress shirt, wreaks havoc at a birthday party.

The likeability gap is such an issue that Reeves is running an ad in the closing days of the campaign in which he looks directly at the camera and says: “Now here’s something you won’t see often in politics. I’m here to tell you my opponent Bill Waller is a nice guy. I respect him, but I disagree with his ideas.”

The candidates have sharp differences on two issues that have dominated discussion: gasoline taxes and Medicaid.

Waller proposes increasing the gas tax to pay for highways. He also wants to let people with low-paying jobs purchase Medicaid coverage, similar to a plan that Indiana adopted when Vice President Mike Pence was governor. Waller says the influx of federal money would help keep rural hospitals open.

Reeves opposes both ideas.

“I think Obamacare was a mistake. Judge Waller would expand Obamacare in our state and add 300,000 more Mississippians to the government rolls,” Reeves said during a debate Wednesday. “I think taxes are too high. Judge Waller would raise the gas tax. … If you want higher taxes and more Obamacare, Judge Waller may be your candidate. But if you want a real conservative leading the party in the November general elections, I’m your man.”

Waller said that in the first round of primary voting, more than 50 percent of people agreed with his proposals.

“We need help with health care, education, roads and bridges,” Waller said. “I’m the candidate that can win in November, and I’m the best conservative to lead us forward.”

Follow Emily Wagster Pettus: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.