By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA — Gubernatorial
candidates tromped through red mud and sawdust Thursday to make their home-stretch appeals to potential voters at the Neshoba County Fair, an annual gathering that draws tens of thousands of people to the hills of east-central Mississippi.
Party primaries are Tuesday, and the men who want to succeed two-term Republican Gov. Haley Barbour touted their private-sector experience or records in elected office.
Candidates gave 10-minute stump speeches on a stage occupied by generations of state and national politicians before them — including Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, who spoke at the fair during in his successful 1980 campaign.
Republican Phil Bryant of Brandon, who has raised the most money in the governor’s race, said he fought corruption for 11 years as state auditor, then ran for lieutenant governor four years ago when that job was open because he wanted to help advance Barbour’s agenda of cutting taxes and attracting economic development.
“The greatest joy in my life is being lieutenant governor to Haley Barbour,” Bryant said.
Republican Dave Dennis, a construction executive from Pass Christian, said he offers the kind of private-sector experience and leadership needed in the governor’s office. Dennis has served on the Federal Reserve board in New Orleans, and said his family’s contracting firm has completed more than 6,000 commercial contracts without being sued.
“If you want a career politician, I’m not your guy,” Dennis said.
Dennis took a jab at Bryant for remarks the lieutenant governor made on the Mississippi Gulf Coast last year. After the BP oil spill, many coastal residents complained they were bothered by a petroleum smell coming from the Gulf of Mexico.
“He comes to the coast and tells the state of Mississippi, ‘You don’t smell oil. You smell lawnmowers,'” Dennis said. “Who does he think he’s talking to”
Democrat Bill Luckett, an attorney and businessman from Clarksdale, held up a tool belt at the beginning and end of his speech, saying he had used it while renovating buildings in his hometown. He and his business partner, actor Morgan Freeman, own a blues club and an upscale restaurant that Luckett said have helped revive the city.
“Friends, it just takes vision and leadership and sweat. And I’ve given all those to my community,” Luckett said.
Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, a Democrat, said he has worked hard to help create jobs in his city. He said he wants to improve education by having “graduation coaches” work in middle schools and high schools. He also said he wants to give tax breaks to public school teachers with at least three years’ experience to help keep them on the job.
DuPree said he is able to run for governor because he learned a strong work ethic from his single mother when he was growing up.
“I’m here because my mama taught us that growing up poor is not an excuse,” DuPree said.
Barbour — who is term-limited and couldn’t run again this year — said in his Neshoba Fair speech Thursday that job creation will be the biggest challenge facing his successor as governor of Mississippi.
“He must be the chief economic development official for the state,” said Barbour, who was a Washington lobbyist before winning the governorship in 2003.
Barbour is not endorsing anyone in Tuesday’s GOP primary but said last week that he already has voted absentee.