By Emily Wagster Pettus
Republican Sen. Thad Cochran said Thursday that he's asking for the support of Mississippi voters in November "no matter your skin color, or how much money you have."
Cochran and his Democratic challenger, former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, spoke to thousands of people Thursday at the Neshoba County Fair, an annual gathering known as "Mississippi's Giant Houseparty." It's one of the largest political gatherings in the state and possibly the only time before Election Day the two candidates will appear in the same place at the same time.
Although Cochran and Childers gave back-to-back speeches, they did not pass each other or have any interaction onstage or backstage. Cochran did not mention his primary opponent during his 10-minute speech.
"If you happened to walk by a television during the past few months, you might have seen or heard some things about me," the 76-year-old Cochran said. "Some pictures even made me look a little bit old."
He deadpanned that he's not bothered by it -- "not too much."
While interest groups could spend millions on television ads and sophisticated voter-outreach efforts this year, the Neshoba County Fair is proudly old-fashioned and decidedly low-tech. The 10-day event in the red-clay hills of east central Mississippi attracts tens of thousands of revelers each year, including extended groups of families and friends who spend their vacation camping in cabins painted bright shades of turquoise, pink, yellow and orange.
There's a small midway, an exhibit hall for quilts and canned vegetable and a dirt track for horse racing -- no (legal) betting allowed. And just about every politician in the state, too.
A half-dozen protesters sat silently in the audience as Cochran spoke, their mouths covered by wide red tape. They held signs with the slogan "Betrayed" to show their unhappiness with the six-term senator, who beat a tea party-backed state lawmaker in a GOP primary runoff with the help of blacks who traditionally vote for Democrats.
Among the protesters was Larry Eubanks of Star, Mississippi, who wore a T-shirt bearing the logo of state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the man Cochran defeated by 7,667 votes. Eubanks shook hands with Childers after the speeches and said he's considering voting for the Democrat.
"We want to let Cochran know that it's not over 'til it's over," Eubanks said. "We suspect foul play."
McDaniel has said repeatedly that he intends to challenge his loss, but he hasn't said when that will happen. He also has not released any documents to substantiate his claims of voting irregularities.
Cochran got frequent applause from a crowd seated on long wooden benches, their feet on the sawdust-strewn dirt, inside the fairgrounds' tin-roofed pavilion where his campaign had handed out hundreds of "THAD" signs and T-shirts. He called the federal health overhaul a "disaster" and said he wants to repeal it. The former Senate Appropriations Committee chairman also said he opposes wasteful federal spending.
The group of people waving Childers signs was smaller. He told the audience that he supports increasing the minimum wage and legislating equal pay for women and men who do the same jobs. Without mentioning President Barack Obama, Childers also said Mississippi should consider expanding Medicaid to cover an additional 300,000 people under the federal health care overhaul -- something the state's Republican governor and Republican-controlled state Legislature have not done.
"Poverty doesn't know a political party," Childers, 56, said. "Lack of education doesn't know a political party. Lack of health care doesn't know a political party. Unemployment doesn't know a political party, and ours is the highest in the nation right now."