A fairgoer honors the National Anthem during the Neshoba County Fair Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

NESHOBA COUNTY FAIR — Attorney General Jim Hood said he toned down his speech Thursday at the Neshoba County Fair as the three Republican candidates for governor fought among themselves.

“This race is kind of heating up,” said Hood, viewed as the front-runner among the eight Democrats running for governor. “…I know y’all came to hear me throw a few rocks and the others as well.

Rachael Ring holds 6-year-old Emma Hopper on her shoulders as they support Democrat Attorney General Jim Hood during the Neshoba County Fair Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019.

“But when the others are fighting I have always been told you just let them fight. I am trying to bite my lip on a few of the things – to save a few of these rocks.’

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, hoping to garner a majority vote in Tuesday’s Republican primary and avoid a runoff, continued to focus on Hood and “the Washington liberals.” But he did reference his Republican opponents when he stressed that he is the only candidate in the race opposed to expanding Medicaid to cover primarily the working poor and opposed to increasing the gasoline tax to pay for road and bridge repairs.

His two Republican opponents, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. and state Rep. Robert Foster, continued to stress that policies needed to change to improve the state’s economy that, statistically speaking, is not keeping pace with growth in surrounding states and with the nation.

Their claims that the state economy was lagging seemed to not only upset Reeves, but also outgoing Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who has endorsed Reeves, and Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn.

Speaking in a defiant tone, Gunn said it “was hogwash” that the state was not on good economic footing.

“The naysayers are always there,” Bryant said, adding he talks to governors of surrounding states and “they are worried about (competing) with Mississippi.”

Bryant, who spoke right after Reeves, greeted him warmly as they crossed paths on the Founders Square Pavilion stage.

Political signage is posted on a light pole at the Neshoba County Fair Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

The tine-roofed, sawdust-floored pavilion was filled and people lined up along the edges of the pavilion to hear the candidates. The annual speaking appeared to have added importance this year, in part, because Reeves was expected to be an easy winner of the Republican primary, but recent polls indicate that Waller and Foster might have momentum, possibly forcing a runoff – most likely between Waller and Reeves.

All the major gubernatorial candidates brought large contingents on supporters for the final day of the political speakings – as usual a hot and humid day.

Waller, a Jackson resident, spoke like a candidate ready for a runoff. He said his plan to expand the Medicaid rolls to cover the working poor, to pump more money into infrastructure and increase teacher pay would grow the state economy and create momentum and excitement in the state.

“We need a big program. We want some excitement out there. Who wants some excitement?” asked Waller as his supporters cheered.

Foster, a freshman House member from DeSoto County, said people have told him he should garner more experience in state government before running for governor. But he said too many people who stay in state government for long periods of time are beholden to special interests for their campaign contributions. He downplayed an endorsement Reeves received from the National Rifle Association, and said no one was more pro-Second Amendment than he was.

“If I am wearing a pair of pants, I am packing,” Foster said. “That is the only endorsement I need.”

Foster said he had developed the largest agritourism farm in the state and was “uniquely qualified” to serve as governor.

Waller pointed out as chief justice of the state Supreme Court he was the only candidate in the race to have overseen one branch of state government.

Reeves, who had the largest group of supporters at the event, said “I am committed to spending more money on public education.” He touted the high school graduation rates and gains on national standardized tests.

He added, “the main thing is amongst conservatives our political enemies are not one another. Our political enemies are the policy ideas of the party of Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama and of Hillary Clinton and of Jim Hood.”

Before Reeves spoke, Hood told the crowd that Reeves would speak of Washington liberals when he could not defend his own record.

Michael Brown, a Democratic candidate for governor, speaks during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019.

While most of the focus was on the three Republicans, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Albert Wilson, Michael Brown, Velesha P. Williams, Robert Ray and Robert Shuler Smith also spoke, as did Constitution Party candidate Bob Hickingbottom and independent David Singletary. Singletary touted the legalization of marijuana.

Hinds County District Attorney Shuler Smith said, “It is time to build one Mississippi for all citizens.”

Williams, a former military veteran and Jackson State University administrator, said she was running for governor because, “God has purposed my life for such a time as this.”

Hood told the crowd, “What we are doing is not working. You know it and I know it. Our children are leaving our state more than any state in the Union in the past six years. We have to do something to turn that around.”

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.