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Press-Register - Figures, Sessions Fight for Senate

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This November's election for U.S. Senate will feature a Mobile-versus-Mobile clash as two of the area's most familiar political figures rolled over primary opponents Tuesday to claim their parties' respective nominations.

With a majority of precincts reporting in the Democratic field, state Sen. Vivian Davis Figures had captured almost two-thirds of the vote to beat retired security consultant Johnny Swanson of Birmingham and Haleyville truck driver Mark "No NCAA" Townsend.

In the Republican primary, with most precincts reporting, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions led retired postal worker Earl Mack Gavin of Lee County by an overwhelming margin.

In a statement, Sessions, a former federal prosecutor who is seeking a third, six-year term, said he was "honored" to again be the GOP nominee.

"I look forward to traveling to every corner of the state as we run a vigorous campaign during the

general election this fall." He was not available for further comment because of a dinner with a state manufacturers' group, according to a spokesman.

Surrounded by several dozen supporters at her victory party Tuesday evening at Saucy-Q Bar B Que restaurant on Government Street, Figures, 51, wasted no time taking a poke at her general election opponent.

"He is for the super rich and big business," Figures said. With plans to center her campaign around issues like education, health care and veterans' benefits, Figures said she will focus on traveling the state and meeting voters in small settings until November. With only a fraction of the money in Sessions' campaign war chest, Figures also intends to hold more fundraisers.

The widow of the late state Senate President Pro Tempore Michael Figures, D-Mobile, she is best known in the Legislature for her work to curb smoking in public places. The outcome of Tuesday's primary makes her the first black woman in Alabama history to run on a major party ticket for the U.S. Senate.

But Sessions, 61, remains the odds-on favorite, despite the GOP's' struggles elsewhere and the likelihood of an unusually large black turnout this November if Barack Obama is the Democrats' presidential nominee.

"It's always hard to beat an incumbent," Brad Moody, a political scientist at Auburn University Montgomery, said Tuesday afternoon. In this case, he said, Figures lacks the funding, the visibility and an issue to use against Sessions, he said.

At the national level, that assessment was largely seconded by David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that specializes in black issues.

Bositis noted that better-known Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Artur Davis of Birmingham and state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks had passed on the race. In addition, Bositis said, "I don't think Alabama's ready yet" to elect a black woman.

In his last re-election bid in 2002, Sessions beat then-state Auditor Susan Parker with 59 percent of the vote. He has since main tained his record as one of the U.S. Senate's most conservative members and ?with the notable exception of rewriting the nation's immigration laws ? a close ally of President Bush. In an interview last month, he cited his work in bringing defense dollars back to the state and predicted that he is poised to represent Alabama more effectively in a third term.

As of the end of March, Sessions had more than $4 million in his campaign account, according to his last Federal Election Commission disclosure report, compared with about $44,600 for Figures.

Despite the contests in both parties, the primaries were devoid of excitement or even much evidence of campaigning as Townsend, Gavin and Swanson had little name recognition or money.

Looking ahead, Figures said she did not want to discuss the possible impact that national politics will have on her race. "I want to run this campaign on Vivian Davis Figures and her merits," she said. "I want people to vote for me for me."

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