Two Democrats and five Republicans participated in a two-hour televised forum Thursday night at the Mississippi College School of Law.
Republican Dave Dennis, a construction contractor from Pass Christian, criticized Bryant's attempt to lure the Miss America pageant to Mississippi — a move Dennis said would be a financial benefit to one of Bryant's top campaign contributors.
Democrat Bill Luckett, an attorney and businessman from Clarksdale, called Bryant a "career politician" and said the lieutenant governor has not helped pull Mississippi off the bottom of national health and education rankings. Luckett said Bryant only makes major policy proposals during election years.
"Mr. Bryant has not made things happen," Luckett said.
Bryant, who was state auditor 10 years before winning the lieutenant governorship in 2007, said he has helped balance the state budget and create jobs. He also pointed to a law enacted three years ago to require all employers in Mississippi to use an electronic verification system to ensure they're not hiring illegal immigrants. That proposal was "not during election year," said Bryant, of Flowood. He also said that the Legislature set aside money for the rainy day fund during his first year as lieutenant governor.
Republican Ron Williams of Moss Point, who runs a business that cleans up hazardous materials, said: "E-Verify is a joke." He said many businesses, including some homebuilders, hire people who are in the United States illegally, and that hurts competing businesses.
"I'm not picking on the Homebuilders Association. I know they endorsed our lieutenant governor," Williams said.
Bryant stood stoically through most of the criticism from opponents. He sometimes smiled or shook his head.
Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, a Democrat, did not criticize Bryant, although the two disagreed on several issues.
Bryant and the other Republicans, including Pearl River County supervisor Hudson Holliday of Poplarville, said they oppose the federal health care overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law. Both of the Democrats, Luckett and DuPree, said they support many parts of the law, including provisions designed to make insurance more readily available to people with pre-existing health conditions.
"I think we ought to be focusing on how do we make Mississippians healthier," DuPree said.
Dennis said the federal health law will kill jobs.
Holliday said: "It's not about job killing. It's about people killing. 'Obamacare' will cause people to die in this state."
By 2014, the law will offer coverage to more than 30 million uninsured people nationwide and ban insurers from turning away people with existing medical problems. It also requires insurers to cover more preventive screenings for potentially deadly diseases.
Bryant pointed out that he filed a lawsuit to challenge the federal health law, which he said is too intrusive and will add hundreds of thousands more people to the Medicaid rolls.
"At some point, we've got to be a culture of individual responsibility," Bryant said.
Bryant and Dennis are the top fundraisers in the Republican gubernatorial primary, while Luckett and DuPree are the top fundraisers on the Democratic side.
Dennis said the state will have a leadership void when two-term Republican governor Haley Barbour leaves office in January. Dennis said he would bring private-sector experience to the governorship: "You're hiring someone to take that leadership mantle and run with it."
Bryant pointed to his own experience in state government, while DuPree said being mayor is strong preparation to become governor. Luckett said he has helped revitalize Clarksdale by renovating buildings and opening Ground Zero blues club.
Two other Democratic gubernatorial candidates, William Bond Compton of Meridian and Guy Dale Shaw of Coffeeville, were not invited to participate in the forum. Organizers said there was room for only seven candidates on stage. Compton attended the forum and said he thought it was unfair that he was excluded.
Party primaries are Aug. 2 and runoffs, if needed, are Aug. 23.
Williams said repeatedly Thursday night that special interests control Mississippi. "Our state needs to get away from the good ole boy, connected relationships that run the Capitol," Williams said.
Republican James Broadwater of Byram, an ordained Baptist minister and former state employee, said if he's governor, he'll sign an executive order banning all abortions. He also said: "I would use all means necessary to put an immediate end to illegal immigration in our state."
One independent, William Oatis, will be on the Nov. 8 ballot. Competing factions of the Reform Party also want to put a gubernatorial candidate on the general election ballot. After the primaries, the state Election Commission could decide which Reform candidate will run.
The Sun Herald reported last month that Bryant had taken Sam Haskell of Oxford, chairman of the Miss America Organization, to a meeting of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Tourism Partnership to pitch the idea of trying to lure the Miss America pageant to the area. The proposal was to use most of the $16 million in marketing money that BP PLC gave the area after last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The tourism group offered $1 million. Bryant has said bringing the Miss America pageant to the Mississippi Gulf Coast would help the area be seen by millions of TV viewers. Haskell has contributed $35,000 to Bryant's campaign. Bryant did not respond to Dennis' criticism about the pageant.