NESHOBA COUNTY FAIR: State’s candidates make the most of their fair experience

PHILADELPHIA – While many of the Neshoba County fairgoers filled their plates with homemade chicken salad, barbecue meatballs and other goodies during lunchtime Wednesday, Alan Nunnelee worked to channel his inner fire and brimstone.
As Nunnelee stepped onto the pavilion stage on Founder’s Square on the fairgrounds, he prepared to give the folks sitting in the wooden pews what they wanted.
But to be fair, more than half of the audience listening to his speech was part of an orchestrated effect organized by Nunnelee’s campaign.
The dozens of people holding the Tupelo state senator’s signs, wearing his campaign stickers and cheering the punch lines of his speech had planned to do so well before they arrived at the fair.
Longtime Mississippi political operatives, pundits, journalists and politicians who gather at the Neshoba County Fair annually for the political speeches – each one 10 minutes long – have their own criteria for what makes a good fair speech.
They usually agree that a candidate needs to be simple, to the point, have something interesting to say in an attention-grabbing way, and pile their speeches high with political rhetoric while keeping wonkish policy details to a minimum.
Seeming to follow their experts’ advice, Nunnelee made it clear when he began speaking to the crowd where he stood on the Democratic speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“The first day on the job we’re going to fire Nancy Pelosi,” Nunnelee said to a cheering crowd, repeating a criticism he has leveled at the incumbent U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, a Democrat, who voted for the speaker.
Although the Neshoba County Fair is located in the 3rd Congressional District, candidates from throughout the state flock to the red dirt of the fairgrounds each year to jockey for media attention and to glad-hand with political insiders.
Childers is not at the fair this year; he is in Washington while Congress remains in session. Brad Morris, senior adviser to the congressman, said Childers’ absence from the fair didn’t put him at a disadvantage.
“Congressman Childers looks forward to every opportunity between now and November to take his fiscal responsibility and fighting for jobs to the voters,” Morris said.
The fair features two days of political speakings, the first of which was Wednesday.
Another of the first-day speakers was Attorney General Jim Hood.
Before delivering his remarks, he said he wanted to use his 10 minutes as an opportunity to inform the public about what his office had done in the previous year and what to expect in the year ahead.
Relaxed and walking around with his son, Matthew, Hood said he’ll wait to focus on the political themes next year when state-level office elections are held. And as promised, his speech offered no major announcement or surprise.
But not all presentations are so low-key and routine.
The gubernatorial debate at the 1995 fair between Dick Molpus and Kirk Fordice had a lasting impact on that race’s outcome. The fiery language from Republican Fordice seemed to make the policy expertise of the Democratic candidate appear insignificant to the audience and media.
To fairgoers looking for a speech filled with red meat, Fordice delivered.
When state Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney speaks this morning, don’t expect him to get too antagonistic while at the podium. The Republican will likely announce he will run for re-election and how his office had worked to help handle claims on the Gulf Coast related to the oil spill disaster.
Chaney said he knows the office of insurance commissioner isn’t very sexy, but recent federal changes in health care and financial regulatory reform add additional relevancy to the office. He said he wants his speech to articulate the messages of Mississippi having “available, affordable and accountable insurance.”
“Don’t expect much fire and brimstone,” he said. “I’m not going to pull a Kirk Fordice – I can tell you that.”

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Robbie Ward is a graduate student in public policy and administration at Mississippi State University and a former Daily Journal reporter. Contact him at (662) 418-4290 or starkvillecityjail@gmail.com.

Robbie S. Ward/Special to the Daily Journal