Politicians battling for attention at Neshoba County Fair|[07/26/07]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 26, 2007

PHILADELPHIA – Gov. Haley Barbour was not a physical presence at the Neshoba County Fair on Wednesday, but other Republican candidates tried to present themselves as his conservative soulmates.

State Auditor Phil Bryant and state Sen. Charlie Ross, who are competing for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, both said they would be close political allies of Barbour, a former GOP national chairman who is presiding over Mississippi’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Republican Al Hopkins, a retired military man who’s trying to unseat Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, criticized Hood for differing with Barbour on the use of money from a tobacco lawsuit settlement.

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Even Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell, a former Democrat who converted to the GOP in the past few years, tried to link himself directly to Barbour.

&#8220I got a letter from Gov. Barbour…. And it says, ‘Lester, thank you and the Department of Agriculture for protecting the people of the state of Mississippi against contaminated catfish shipping in from China,”’ said Spell, who’s facing a tough campaign this year amid questions about his role in a failed beef processing plant.

Barbour, who has already raised millions of dollars for his own re-election effort, was expected to draw a large, rowdy crowd today under the tin-roofed pavilion of the fair’s Founders Square. Attorney John Arthur Eaves Jr., the top fundraiser among the Democratic candidates for governor, also will roll into the fair with supporters in tow.

For two days every summer, the fairgrounds in the rolling, red-clay hills of east central Mississippi become the center of the state’s political scene. Candidates for state and local offices get a few minutes each to give old-fashioned stump speeches to spectators who sit on long wooden pews under the pavilion or stand under shade trees nearby, shuffling their feet in wood shavings that are strewn to control the red dust.

While the two Republican candidates for lieutenant governor said they would promote Barbour’s agenda, the only Democrat in the race said he would be independent and stand up for the values of Mississippians. Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Mooreville, told a crowd of about 1,200 people that he thinks Barbour is a good man.

&#8220But sometimes he’s right and sometimes he’s wrong,” Franks said.

Franks is unopposed in the Aug. 7 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.

Ross told the fair crowd that his decade of experience in the Senate will be an advantage if he becomes the chamber’s presiding officer, a duty the lieutenant governor holds. Ross pointed to his success passing legislation that put limits on lawsuit awards and expanded citizens’ rights to protect themselves against intruders.

&#8220You are the first line of defense against crime,” Ross said.

Bryant, speaking moments later, said he has often heard his opponent talk about getting bills passed at the Capitol.

&#8220You don’t do anything in the Mississippi Legislature by yourself,” Bryant said.

Most of the speeches received applause, and some got enthusiastic whoops and hollers. As Spell spoke, though, a heckler stood on the side of the pavilion holding a fluorescent orange sign with the hand-letter slogan &#8220Cull Lester.”

The man, Pete Bailey of Starkville, said in an interview later that he’s mad about the state losing millions of dollars on the failed cull-cow plant.

&#8220Even a dead Jim Buck Ross is better than what we got up there right now,” Bailey said, nodding to where Spell had just stood on stage. Ross was Spell’s predecessor as agriculture commissioner.

Two candidates challenging Spell – Republican Max Phillips and Democrat Rickey Cole – also criticized the commissioner’s role in helping promote the beef plant. Spell never specifically mentioned the plant, but he said during his speech: &#8220You know, everything you do doesn’t turn out all perfect. But you learn from your mistakes and you go on. People don’t want a quitter in this job. They want a strong Department of Agriculture.”