Candidate Musgrove heckled at Neshoba County Fair

Published 2:48 pm Thursday, July 31, 2008

Democratic U.S. Senate challenger Ronnie Musgrove never lost his composure Wednesday as hundreds of Republicans heckled him under the tin roofed-pavilion at the Neshoba County Fair, one of Mississippi’s hottest — and sweatiest — political venues.

“I’ll get to the worn-out old political tricks in just a moment,” the former governor said calmly as supporters of U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker interrupted Musgrove’s speech with chants of “Ro-GER! Ro-GER! Ro-GER!”

Musgrove is trying to unseat Wicker in a November special election that’s attracting national attention as Democrats try to strengthen their majority in the U.S. Senate.

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“Almost three decades ago, Ronald Reagan spoke from this very stage,” Musgrove said. “During that campaign, Ronald Reagan asked Americans a very simple question. It’s the same question I ask today — are you better off now than you were a few years ago?”

That prompted a torrent of “No!!!” from Musgrove supporters and “Yes!!!” from those in Wicker T-shirts.

In his own speech moments later, Wicker talked about the 2003 gubernatorial race, when Musgrove was unseated by Republican Haley Barbour. Barbour appointed Wicker to temporarily fill a U.S. Senate seat when the GOP’s Trent Lott retired last December, just one year into a six-year term. One of Barbour’s nephews is managing Wicker’s campaign.

“When Ronnie ran against Haley, he spent the entire race beating up on Haley and telling us what a bad person Haley was and what a terrible governor he’d turn out to be. Now we know how that turned out,” Wicker said. “Ronnie had a chance to be good governor. He let us down, and we gave him his walking papers.”

The Neshoba County Fair is a weeklong gathering in the red clay hills of east central Mississippi. At the hottest part of each summer, hundreds of families live in two-story, shotgun-style cabins. Politicians converge on the fairgrounds for two days to get their 10 minutes on stage.

Wicker supporters booed Wednesday as Musgrove called himself a conservative “Mississippi Democrat” who opposes abortion and supports gun owners’ rights. Musgrove said Wicker votes the Republican line too often.

“I will represent 2.9 million citizens in Mississippi, not one political party,” Musgrove said. “I won’t blindly follow the marching orders of my party or vote with my leadership 97 percent of the time in spite of the outcome for the state of Mississippi.”

Several of the Wicker supporters held homemade signs criticizing Musgrove. One said, “Your nose is growing,” and showed Pincchio between two photos of Musgrove. Another sign said, “Democrat Three-Speed Fan” and had cutout photos of Al Gore, Musgrove and Barack Obama.

“I’m supporting John McCain for president,” Wicker told the crowd. “John McCain’s an American hero. Now, while I don’t agree with him on everything, let me tell you what — John McCain will do everything he can to keep our taxes down. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is so eager to raise our taxes, I’m surprised he didn’t do it last week when he was in Berlin.”

Musgrove never mentioned Obama during his speech, but he didn’t hesitate when he was asked offstage who he’s supporting in the presidential race.

“I’m voting for my party’s nominee,” Musgrove said.