- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. (AP) - Most candidates at the Neshoba County Fair went out of their way Wednesday to promote their conservative credentials to an audience that was mostly white and, judging by the applause, mostly in support of gun rights and opposed to abortion, same-sex marriage and Common Core academic standards.

The annual round of speaking at the campground fair known as “Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty” comes days before Tuesday’s primaries, when voters will narrow the field of candidates for statewide, regional, legislative and county offices.

Tim Johnson, a former Republican state senator who switched to the Democratic Party to run for lieutenant governor, opened his speech by citing his love for Jesus and saying Mississippi needs to adopt a constitutional requirement for full funding of schools. He also called for expansion of Medicaid, which Republican leaders have rejected by saying they don’t believe the federal government will fulfill its promise to pay for much of the coverage.

“For our leaders to turn their backs on billions of dollars that could flow into this state … just doesn’t make any sense,” said Johnson, an Elvis impersonator who ended his speech by singing, in his best Presley voice, “How Great Thou Art.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who’s seeking a second term, spoke after Johnson and said expanding Medicaid and adopting the education funding initiative that will be on the November ballot would bust the budget.

Reeves said when he ran for lieutenant governor, he promised to cut government spending, cut taxes and reduce Mississippi’s long-term debt.

“You’re looking at a lieutenant governor who has kept his promises,” Reeves said as hundreds of people fanned themselves in the heat and humidity under a tin-roofed pavilion.

Reeves’ Republican primary challenger, Alisha Nelson McElhenney, and Johnson’s Democratic primary opponent, Jelani Barr, did not speak at the fair Wednesday.

Longtime Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler, who’s trying to unseat two-term state Auditor Stacey Pickering in the Republican primary, used her speech to criticize Pickering for spending campaign money on travel and other personal expenses. She said Pickering has failed to fully investigate public corruption, and she questioned his campaign ads that say he has recovered millions of dollars for taxpayers.

“It’s easy to go out and get the low-hanging fruit and let the big fish go,” Butler said.

Pickering spoke immediately after Butler and didn’t respond to her criticism of his campaign spending. He said he stands by his record of recovering $24 million of misspent public money since he took office in early 2008.

Pickering also said there was little fraud in the spending of state and federal money for Hurricane Katrina recovery.

“We are the role model for other states to follow,” Pickering said.

Several Republicans on Wednesday cited Ronald Reagan, who spoke at the fair during his 1980s presidential campaign - but they didn’t mention that Reagan was strongly criticized for using the phrase “states’ rights” in a county where three civil rights workers had been killed in the “Mississippi Burning” case just 16 years earlier. Reagan said programs such as education should be taken away from the federal government and returned to states and local communities.

Addie Green, a black Democrat running for agriculture commissioner, also spoke Wednesday. Green used a decidedly different cultural reference by quoting Mississippi civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who said in the 1960s that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of inequality. Green said she’s sick and tired of poor people having too little access to fresh produce.

Speeches continue Thursday.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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