The most unpopular people at the Neshoba County Fair weren't even there.
Mississippi politicians won whoops and hollers of approval by trash-talking the federal judges in California who ruled in June that the phrase "under God'' is unconstitutional in the Pledge of Allegiance. Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck slammed them. So did Supreme Court Justice Chuck McRae and the only of his two challengers who spoke at the fair, Gulfport lawyer Jess Dickinson. U.S. Reps. Ronnie Shows and Chip Pickering, who are competing in this year's 3rd District race, lined up to take jabs at the ruling and to defend God and country.
"I don't care what those judges in California say. In Mississippi, we're going to say 'one nation under God,''' Tuck declared to the applause of several hundred casually dressed folks under the tin-roofed pavilion of Founder's Square.
The Neshoba County Fair, an eight-day house party in east central Mississippi, attracts thousands of people each year. Some extended groups of families and friends spend all eight days on the fairgrounds, cheering harness races at the track, sipping sweet iced tea on front porches and watching toddlers play in the red clay and sawdust.
Political speeches drew hundreds of viewers Wednesday and about 4,000 Thursday, when Republican Pickering and Democrat Shows faced off in only the second debate of the fair's 113-year history. Each campaign bused in supporters, and the opposing groups were easily identified. Pickering supporters wore white T-shirts and carried white balloons. The Shows troops sported red T-shirts and red balloons.
The two candidates, who were tossed together because of a Census count that cost Mississippi one of its five House seats, tried to one-up each other on opposition to abortion. Both have been endorsed by Right to Life groups, but Pickering criticized Shows for backing Democratic House leaders who support abortion rights.
Shows said he will vote for the Democratic nominee for House speaker, but no one will tell him how to vote on issues. Pickering said the speakership vote is vital because only Republican leaders would represent Mississippi values.
"It is the only vote where each member stands and verbally announces, pronounces to the country and the Congress do they support a conservative leader or do they support a liberal leader,'' Pickering said. "Do they support a pro-life leader or pro-abortion.''
Shows responded, "Chip, I've been voting for pro-life issues since you were in high school and I was in the state Senate. I've been doing it a lot longer than you have, I guarantee you.''
Shows said it's important to have an independent mind on a host of issues, and he accused Pickering of voting lockstep with Republican leaders on trade policies that hurt Mississippi workers. Pickering countered that he, not Shows, is stronger on trade.
The Neshoba fair wasn't Mississippi's only big political event of the week. Legislators were at the Capitol on Tuesday for a one-day special session on prisons, economic development, Medicaid and libraries.
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who called the session and set the agenda, got three of his four wishes.
Lawmakers approved a $31.5 million bond package to help Howard Industries add 2,000 new jobs over the next 10 years in Jones County. They lifted a restriction from the Medicaid budget, and they gave a coast library system permission to add a branch at the Navy homeport in Pascagoula. But lawmakers shot down Musgrove's request to cut $6 million from the budget for private prisons.
At the fair Thursday, Musgrove praised lawmakers for their work on the economic package, but he didn't mention a word about the prison budget. The governor had already said he will call lawmakers back to Jackson this fall to reconsider prison spending.
"Sometimes it simply takes a special session to do the important things of Mississippi,'' he said at the fair.
Some of the aspiring politicians spoke before an almost empty pavilion. Brad McDonald of Hattiesburg, the Libertarian candidate for the new 3rd District seat, acknowledged he's not the typical Mississippi politician.
At 39, he wears his hair in a long ponytail and says he's doesn't have any political, business or military experience. He doesn't even live in the district where he's running - not a legal problem but maybe a logistical one to explain to voters.
McDonald said he's just a guy who wants to spread the message that Americans should be concerned about losing their civil liberties.