U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran was swarmed by the media Thursday after his speech at the Neshoba County Fair.
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran was swarmed by the media Thursday after his speech at the Neshoba County Fair.
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran used the Neshoba County Fair to kick off his general election campaign in front of a receptive and unusually large crowd that was expecting political fireworks.

Concerns about tea party protests and disruptions never materialized, though. Only a handful of them appeared, some with duct tape over their mouths carrying hand-made signs reading "betrayed" and "RINO."

Cochran and his Democratic challenger, former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, spoke to thousands of people Thursday at the fair, the size crowd normally seen in statewide election years.

Although Cochran and Childers gave back-to-back speeches, they did not pass each other or have any interaction on stage or backstage. Cochran did not mention his primary opponent Chris McDaniel during his 10-minute speech.

Cochran discussed reducing the deficit, his opposition to Obamacare, including a measure he sponsored to repeal it, his anticipated return to Chairman of Appropriations as well as his work as ranking member of the Agriculture Committee and the recently passed Farm Bill. (See a video of the speech here: http://bit.ly/WZheke.)

"Mississippi farmers are worth fighting for," Cochran said. And he addressed an issue people have been talking a lot about.

"If you happened to walk by a television during the past few months, you might have seen or heard some things about me," the 76-year-old Cochran said. "Some pictures even made me look a little bit old."

He deadpanned that he's not bothered by it - "not too much."

Then he spoke of "another Republican" who once spoke at the Fair who was also criticized for his age.

"I don't know about you, but I think Ronald Reagan turned out to be a great President," the six-term Senator said, receiving the strongest round of applause his entire speech.

Cochran launched into his list of promises if re-elected, which included repealing ObamaCare, supporting agriculture and stopping wasteful spending, among other things.

"I know people get frustrated with Washington. I do too," he said. "I share that frustration because there's so much at stake, and there's a lot that needs to be done."

Cochran received frequent applause from a crowd seated on long wooden benches, their feet on the sawdust-strewn dirt, inside the tin-roofed pavilion where his campaign had handed out hundreds of "THAD" signs and T-shirts.

He called the federal health overhaul a "disaster" and said he wants to repeal it. The former Senate Appropriations Committee chairman also said he opposes wasteful federal spending.

Cochran said he will represent all Mississippians and asked for the votes of both those who did and didn't support him in the primary.

Cochran called the Affordable Care Act "flawed from the beginning."

"I want all Mississippians to have access to affordable healthcare," Cochran said. "But more government control is not the answer - That's why I've been proud to vote against Obamacare again and again, and will continue to fight it."

That stance was a departure from Childers, who, speaking before Cochran, called Mississippi leaders' refusal to expand Medicaid under the ACA to cover more than 300,000 Mississippians "shameful."

Childers added if U.S. Legislators were children, "we would put them in time-out."

Cochran also promised to continue to support efforts to responsibly strengthen American economy and defense. Childers railed against "out-of-control spending," an obvious appeal to the Tea Party members he hopes to coax away from the GOP.

Nearly absent from the annual event, which has become part of the fabric of the the fair and both state and national politics, was mention of Cochran's GOP primary challenger.

A handful of McDaniel supporters, seated in the middle of the crowd on the second row, wore red tape over their mouths and raised signs in silent protest of the June 24th runoff, which McDaniel said Monday he planned to challenge in court. (See story, page A1.)

No Neshoba County Fair speaker mentioned McDaniel by name, but House Speaker Philip Gunn (R-Clinton) made a point to address what he called "the 800-pound gorilla in the room."

He equated the current rift in the party to his marriage, which he said was "never perfect."

"The sign of a strong marriage or a strong alliance," Gunn said. "Is not the absence of disagreements. The strength of a relationship is the ability to work through those disagreements and come together at the end of the day."

Gunn ended his speech by pointing out that the GOP has a real enemy - liberal Democrats.

Childers - the only Democrat other than former Gov. William Winter to speak Thursday - also addressed the issue, saying he was ready to see Mississippians put the ugly chapter behind them and focus on issues for the upcoming general election.

"This race should never have been about anything other than issues," he said. "It never should have been allowed to drag family members and friends into the election when they're not on the ballot, and it should never have hurt innocent people."

Other notable Thursday speakers included Gov. Phil Bryant, who touted his record in the area of economic development, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and State Treasurer Lynn Fitch.