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Neshoba political speeches light on policy proposals

Mississippi politicians stuck to time-tested themes Thursday at the Neshoba County Fair, touting their own accomplishments but revealing little about their future plans.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour gave a cut-and-paste version of several familiar speeches, commending Mississippians for being “strong, resilient, self-reliant people” since Hurricane Katrina.

Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood praised religious groups for helping with the recovery efforts but combined that with sharp criticism of the insurance industry’s denial of many claims in Katrina-ravaged areas.

Auditor Phil Bryant joked that he had become a “high-tech redneck” with a campaign Web site. While acknowledging that he’s preparing for a 2007 statewide election, the Republican wouldn’t confirm one of the worst-kept secrets in political circles — that he’s running for lieutenant governor. The job will be open next year because current Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck is term-limited.

The Neshoba County Fair features two days of stump speeches each summer under a tin-roofed pavilion where spectators sit on long rows of wooden pews, shuffle their feet in sawdust and try to cool themselves off with hand-held fans. Generations of friends and relatives live for eight days in brightly painted, two-story cabins on the fairgrounds, and thousands more people converge on the area for the political speaking days.

Barbour, who has said he expects to seek a second term in 2007, talked Thursday about limiting lawsuits and working to fix the state’s budget problems. He also dished out bipartisan praise to lawmakers who have helped him with his agenda.

“I am grateful to the Democrats who helped,” said Barbour, who chaired the Republican National Committee in the mid-1990s.

He also praised Republican Tuck, who announced at the fair Wednesday that she won’t seek any public office in 2007. Tuck has a year and a half left on her second four-year term. Barbour called Tuck “an indispensable ally” in limiting lawsuits, holding down taxes and backing other programs he championed.

Among other speakers Thursday was Insurance Commissioner George Dale, who said he and his staff have been criticized by consumers and insurance providers because of post-Katrina insurance disputes along the Gulf Coast.

“Both sides are mad at me so I must be doing something right,” Dale told crowd.

There has been widespread speculation that Dale, a Democrat, might not seek a ninth term. However Dale, insurance commissioner since 1976, said nothing about his political plans.

Secretary of State Eric Clark, a Democrat who’s held statewide office since 1996, praised a native son of east central Mississippi — former U.S. Rep. G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery, who died in May. Clark said Montgomery set an example that all politicians should follow by working across traditional barriers of race and geography.

“Being a Mississippian transcends race or party or region or anything else,” Clark said. “We have to figure out what unites us and not promote what divides us.”

Hood, a first-term attorney general, filed a state lawsuit against insurance companies shortly after Katrina. At the fair Thursday, he said some insurance companies are making record profits and taxpayers will cover some storm recovery expenses that the insurers should pay.

“Us taxpayers can’t keep footing the bill for companies who don’t tow their own weight,” Hood said.