Empty cabins are seen at the Neshoba County Fair grounds Wednesday, July 12, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves and his Democratic opponent Brandon Presley still have time to agree to debate during this week’s Neshoba County Fair political speakings on Wednesday and Thursday.

There’s precedent for such a quick turnaround. In 1995, incumbent Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice and Democratic opponent Dick Molpus engaged in their historic debate at the Fair’s Founders Square Pavilion.

No, there has not been serious talk of Presley and Reeves debating at this year’s fair. It will not happen. But it was only days before the 1995 political speakings when the memorable debate between Molpus and Fordice was agreed to and completed.

“We had by some estimate 10,000 people” watching the debate at the Fair, Molpus recently said during an interview on Mississippi Today’s The Other Side podcast. “It was spirited because Kirk Fordice and I did not agree on anything … It made for a really lively debate.”

The scene under the pavilion was memorable. When Molpus spoke, Fordice supporters yelled, “Four more years!” When Fordice spoke, Molpus supporters yelled, “Four more months!” Some yelled much more colorful invectives, and at times the candidates would respond.

“Everybody was on their feet,” said Molpus, a Neshoba County native who grew up going to the annual political speakings. “People were catcalling from all around. It was Neshoba County theater at its very best if you like that kind of stuff, which I do. It was kind of bloodsport as politics go. We both had our say and felt good about it.”

Ahead of the 1995 Neshoba County Fair political speakings, Molpus, who was a third term secretary of state, was peppering Fordice to agree to some debates before the November general election. Fordice would not respond, but then unexpectedly only days before the scheduled political speakings the governor proposed the debate at Neshoba.

After Molpus agreed, there were still questions about whether the Fair officials could logistically put the debate together on such short notice. They did.

On the day of the debate, like most summer days at the fair, it was hot and humid. But to add to the surreal moment and intensity, remnants of Hurricane Erin came through the area, darkening the skies and resulting in a rain storms as the debate ended.

“It fit the mood,” Molpus said of the weather. “We walked off the stage and all of the sudden 20, 30, 40 mile per hour winds hit. It was dark and ripping rain. It was a great culmination of that debate.”

The next chapter in the Neshoba County political speakings is set for later this week. While no debate is scheduled this year, Presley and Reeves will speak Thursday back to back. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who is challenging Hosemann in the Republican primary, will speak back to back on Wednesday.

The full political speaking schedule for the 2023 Neshoba County Fair can be found here.

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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.