Longtime Republican Senate leader Trent Lott won re-election in landslide after landslide, but now the once-comfy seat in Mississippi is up for grabs. Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, appointed after Lott retired last year, faces former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in what pundits are calling the Deep South contest of the year.
And that has brought the candidates to the summer political tradition of the year — the Neshoba County Fair. It's a 10-day tent revival meeting in the red clay hills near Philadelphia in east Mississippi — except that the tents are two- and three-story cabins, 600 of them, lined up beyond the carnival rides and cow barns.
"When you're at the Neshoba County Fair, you know you're in the heart and soul of Mississippi," says Wicker, 57, a lawyer, longtime congressman and former state senator. He's on a stage in the fair's pavilion, where hundreds of people have crowded onto rustic wooden pews. Wicker has a receptive audience in this nearly all-white, rural crowd. A few folks in the front rows have made signs juxtaposing Musgrove with a few national Democrats who are not so popular here: Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and Barack Obama. Wicker also makes the link.
"My opponent is the Democratic national nominee for United States senator," Wicker says. "Barack Obama is certainly supporting Ronnie Musgrove. He's raising money for him, he's working for him and he wants Ronnie elected."
A Hard Sell At The Fair
Musgrove, a 52-year-old lawyer, does benefit from Obama's popularity among African-Americans in Mississippi. Blacks make up more than one-third of the state's population. But that's not something Musgrove touts to the crowd in Neshoba County, where the thing to advertise is conservative credentials.
"Make no mistake about it," Musgrove tells the crowd. "I'm a Mississippi Democrat, pro life and pro gun." It's the same strategy Democrat Travis Childers used to win Wicker's north Mississippi House seat earlier this year. That victory has political observers wondering if the Republican hold on the Deep South is slipping.
As a former governor, Musgrove is better known statewide than Wicker. His campaign is less about introducing himself to voters and more about trying to show he's not aligned with the national Democratic Party.
"I will not go to Washington, D.C., and line up and vote lock step with the party," he says. "That is not putting Mississippi first."
Still, Musgrove is a hard sell at the fair.
"We've had Musgrove for governor. He didn't do much to help us," says James Mayfield as he sits on the cabin porch of his friends, John and Turner Smith, who are shelling butter beans. They say they got more help with Republicans in Washington, and they point out that Ronald Reagan opened his presidential campaign in Neshoba County.
"1980 was the watershed," says Sid Salter, a columnist with the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. "When Reagan Republican politics came to Mississippi, it had ripples that carried on. I think now the pendulum may be swinging back."
Salter says Mississippi Republicans like Trent Lott found success using Reagan's formula: looking back to better times and emphasizing issues of faith and family values. "The challenge for Roger Wicker right now is that when people go through the checkout line or drive through the gas station, they're not feeling very warm and fuzzy."
Musgrove strikes right at those economic concerns, boldly echoing Ronald Reagan. "Are you better off now than you were a few years ago?" he asks as the crowd cries, "No!"
A Tradition Born Of Religious Revivals
Politicians have been making stump speeches at the fair since 1896, just a few years after it started. It's one of the last camp fairgrounds in the country, a tradition that grew out of old religious tent revivals.
"I'm really vested in this place," says Neshoba County native Dick Molpus, the Democratic candidate for governor in 1995. He says he's heard both soaring inspiration and the worst that politics can offer at the pavilion here. "We started this whole terrible Southern strategy idea, when white Democrats left and became white Republicans, but I'm hopeful that we're going to spend more time in the future not talking about race, but ... what lifts us up as one group of people."
Fairgoer George Henderson, an African-American retired state trooper, says it doesn't matter what color you are when you pull up to the gas pump.
"I don't think it's a hard matter to figure out," he says. "We see what the ruling party has done and we see what a mess we're in."
Wicker says he knew the race would be competitive. The state's top Republican, Gov. Haley Barbour, has been campaigning for Wicker. He says the GOP is not taking anything for granted. Asked whether the Republican brand is losing favor in the Deep South, he said, "Not in my state."