It was a relaxed moment in a fierce congressional campaign between Childers and the Republican nominee, state Sen. Alan Nunnelee.
Childers is trying keep the north Mississippi congressional seat he first won in a May 2008 special election, while Republicans are trying to grab it back as part of a national strategy to regain the House majority they lost in 2006.
Childers told the cluster of courthouse men that hard-line partisanship is ruining Washington. He said he's independent-minded and votes the interests of his district, even when that means going against his own party's leadership on issues such as the health overhaul.
"I don't take pride in being against my party," Childers said. "I'm a Democrat. I'm proud of being a Democrat, but sometimes my party's wrong. And when they're wrong I vote against them."
In speeches and ads for the past several months, Nunnelee has linked Childers to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California — a technique Nunnelee hopes will motivate voters who don't like San Francisco liberals and don't trust Washington.
"Vote like America's future depends on it," Nunnelee told 200 people Wednesday at a campaign luncheon in Tupelo.
Leading into next Tuesday's election, Childers and Nunnelee have each spent more than $1 million, making this an unusually expensive congressional race by Mississippi standards.
National leaders have campaigned for each side — former President Bill Clinton for Childers, and House Republican leader John Boehner for Nunnelee. Outside groups are also pumping money into the race, which appears too close to call. Seven independent or third-party candidates are also running.
The National Republican Congressional Committee targeted Childers more than a year ago as a vulnerable Democrat: a freshman in a district that voted for Republican John McCain in the November 2008 presidential election. That was when Childers won a full, two-year House term.
The socially conservative district was represented for 13 years by Republican Roger Wicker, until Trent Lott retired unexpectedly from the U.S. Senate in late 2007 and Wicker moved up to the Senate.
Before Wicker, though, north Mississippi had been represented for 53 years by Democrat Jamie Whitten. Some older residents still remember the federal largesse Whitten brought home, including money to bring electricity to remote rural areas decades ago.
The 1st District stretches from fast-growing DeSoto County, just south of Memphis, Tenn., to the Appalachian foothills surrounding Childers' hometown of Booneville and down to the antebellum homes of Columbus and stockyard of West Point, near the Alabama state line. Its once-thriving furniture manufacturing sector has faded, but people are pinning hopes on a Toyota plant that's scheduled to open in autumn 2011 near Nunnelee's hometown of Tupelo.
Childers and Nunnelee are both 52. Both oppose abortion and support gun rights.
Childers was Prentiss County chancery clerk more than 16 years before being elected to Congress. Nunnelee has been in the state Senate nearly 16 years and chairs the Appropriations Committee.
Each candidate has dealt with hardship. Childers was 16 when his father died on Christmas 1974. After that, Childers worked nights and weekends to help support his mother and younger sister. Nunnelee was nearly blind in college because of keratoconus, a degenerative eye disease. He received a left cornea transplant in April 1980 and a right one in January 1982.
During the Nunnelee luncheon in Tupelo, people ate gravy-smothered chicken and mashed potatoes as Nunnelee said the decisions made by Congress in the next few years will affect generations of Americans.
"We've got a chance to get it right," Nunnelee said. "Can any of us look at the record of this Congress over the last two years and say, 'Good job'?"
Some people answered, "No."
Nunnelee continued: "Can you look at the state of our economy and say, 'Keep up the good work?'"
Again, a small refrain of "No."
Joining Nunnelee at the luncheon, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia stood in front of a "Stop Pelosi" sign. He said the country is "headed in the direction of a European-style social welfare state," but the north Mississippi seat could be a "majority maker" for the GOP if Nunnelee wins.
Nunnelee supporter Cathy Coleman of Columbus said she worries about excessive federal spending and debt. Coleman, who owns a marketing firm, said she and her husband don't buy things they can't afford.
"I don't spend my money that way, and I don't want Congress spending my tax money that way," Coleman said.
In an interview later, Childers bristled and said Nunnelee is running a "cookie cutter campaign" directed by national Republicans. Childers, who voted for federal stimulus spending in 2009, said Nunnelee has been "hypocritical" for criticizing the stimulus money while also using the money — hundreds of millions of dollars — to balance the state budget.
Childers slammed Nunnelee for putting some of the stimulus funds in reserve while Mississippi school districts were cutting hundreds of teachers' jobs.
When it came time to help school teachers and help schoolchildren, he turned his back on them," Childers said. "I never have and I never will."
As Childers visited the chancery clerk's office, title company owner Dianne Taylor of Ashland exchanged pleasantries with the congressman and shook his hand.
Moments later, out of Childers' earshot, Taylor said she's "a Republican at heart" but plans to vote for Childers, as she did in 2008.
"He helps people," said Taylor, 63. "We've had instances where we've called his office to deal with veterans' problems, what have you. They got right on it."
As Childers left the courthouse, he gave Chancery Clerk Wayne Crockett a backslapping hug and Crockett wished him good luck in Tuesday's election.
"You're my good friend," Childers said. "I wish I had a thousand friends like you."