Fairgoers listen to politicians during the Neshoba County Fair Wednesday, August 1, 2018.

NESHOBA COUNTY FAIR – A couple of minutes before he took the stage on Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves stepped away from his family and campaign advisers to take in a wild scene.

Attorney General Jim Hood, Reeves’ top political rival and presumed opponent for governor in 2019, talked to reporters just after blasting Republican leaders in his speech about specific problems the state faces “as a direct result of legislative inaction.”

As television cameras faced Hood to capture his comments, four people wearing cheap masks walked behind Hood and held signs into the cameras.

A Hillary Clinton imposter held a sign that said: “I’m with Jim Hood.”

A Barack Obama imposter’s sign said: “Thanks, Jim Hood, for supporting Obamacare! #HopeAndChange.”

A faux Bernie Sanders held a sign that said: “Bernie loves Jim Hood.”

Hood, seemingly unaware of the signs behind him, explained his perspective to reporters.

Attorney general Jim Hood (center) speaks to reporters after his speech at the Neshoba County Fair on August 1, 20118, people posing as supporters hold signs in the background.

“When you see people start talking about the other person, using labels and all those things, people are tired of this partisan mess,” Hood told reporters. “I hear from Republicans who encourage me to run for governor. What they’re tired of is this partisan bickering. They want to see us do something and go forward. They want to see somebody that can bring people together, and I just have to take those slings and arrows today.”

Protesters hold signs as Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood speaks during the Neshoba County Fair Wednesday, August 1, 2018.

The anecdote showcases the political strategy both state officials will continue to employ ahead of the 2019 governor’s race.

Reeves, playing to group identity politics, has painted Hood as a liberal Democrat whose policy would align with national Democratic Party figures who are vastly disliked by the average politically moderate or conservative Mississippian – blocs Hood is expected to draw support from in 2019. Reeves has also homed in on the importance of maintaining the status quo of “successful Republican leadership.”

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks to media during the Neshoba County Fair Wednesday, August 1, 2018.

“Make no mistake: The national Democrats from coast to coast are answering the call,” Reeves said in his speech. “They’re pouring money into Mississippi this year, and they will continue to do so in 2019 to fight our conservative accomplishments. Jim Hood and his friends Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama don’t believe in our state’s potential. They think they can break our conservative principles. They would love nothing better than to turn Mississippi blue.”

Hood, playing instead to individuals of both parties, has worked to express his perceived problems with current Republican leadership, laying the groundwork to offer his own candidacy as the solution to those problems.

“If you’re on a board of aldermen or a county supervisors seat, you understand what the Legislature has done to our counties and cities and how it’s choked all their ability to provide services for their citizens,” Hood said. “Let me tell you what, over the next year, I’ll have an opportunity to finish this indictment (of Republican leadership) and go forward with facts and prove what problems we have in Mississippi. … I think it’s time for us to make that change. I invite you to join me …  let’s move our state forward. I hope you’ll work with me over the next year so that we can move our state forward.”

Hundreds of fairgoers packed into the pavilion at Founder’s Square in hopes of hearing Reeves and Hood jab at each other about a controversial frontage road project, recently exposed through media reports, that would have utilized public funds to connect Reeves’ gated Flowood neighborhood to easy highway access.

Hood launched an investigation into the matter, which Reeves has called a political move. Reeves doubled down on that charge on Wednesday, calling the investigation “a lot of political grandstanding by a potential future political opponent.”

“In recent weeks, I have been under attack by Democrats and their liberal allies in the media after a discredited and unsubstantiated news article,” Reeves said in his speech.

Hood, meanwhile, made a single if subtle reference in his speech to the frontage road, mentioning that of the roughly $3 billion he has obtained for the state through legal settlements since he took office, “I guess that’s enough to pave somebody’s driveway.”

After his speech, Hood told reporters that MDOT correspondence released last week would not halt the investigation.

“As a prosecutor any time someone refuses to voluntary provide information, that’s a good indicator they’ve got something to hide,” Hood said. “We’ve got a duty to do and we’re going to do it. I’m not going to let all that partisan yapping and all that stuff…(derail me). That’s just part of the process.”

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.