NEW ORLEANS — Mississippi’s gubernatorial race ignited Thursday night in the first debate in Hattiesburg, with the two candidates peppering each other with accusations of partisanship and lies.
The race features Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood against Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and while the men remained civil, they drew clear lines for voters.
Ironically, Mr. Hood is attempting to flip the script in the Magnolia State, saying he plans to “drain the swamp,” the Republican majority that controls the Jackson legislature represents.
“I’m going to pay for it by draining the swamp that Tate Reeves has created,” Mr. Hood declared at the outset, using President Trump’s famous campaign slogan.
“There one candidate running for governor who is a conservative and one candidate who is a liberal, and I want to give Mississippi voters the chance to vote for the conservative Republican,” Mr. Reeves responded.
The contrast did fall along those traditional lines.
For example, Mr. Reeves came out against universal background checks on firearms purchases, while Mr. Hood favored them. And when it came to the Mississippi state flag — the last that continues to include a Confederate symbol — Mr. Hood said it was unfortunate while Mr. Reeves said any change should come from a statewide vote, not a capitol lawmaker.
The men traded barbs on ethics, with Mr. Hood saying emails indicated it was Mr. Reeves’ office who got taxpayer money spent on an access road from his neighborhood to a shopping center, while Mr. Reeves quoted a Wall Street Journal editorial that called Mr. Hood’s trial lawyer money men “sleazy.”
“Well, the Wall Street Journal is owned by robber barons,” Mr. Hood scoffed, in another throwback phrase.
Traditional political topics were also debated. For instance, both men agreed Mississippi’s roads are in poor shape and the state’s teachers underpaid. But just how teacher salaries should be brought in line with Southern averages and the roads improved was a bit more opaque.
Mr. Reeves, insisting he would not make promises he couldn’t keep, said the state’s booming economy has made it possible to phase in teacher raises over four years, while Mr. Hood, using the story of a teacher who supports him, said the raises should be immediate.
But when Mr. Hood suggested the money for some of his plans, such as those for roads and bridges, could all come from the money he would save by “draining the swamp,” Mr. Reeves called it a dodge.
“The first thing he’s going to do as governor is raise the gas tax on hard working Mississippians,” Mr. Reeves said.
Even the strong economy could be chalked up to different sources, according to the candidates. Mr. Reeves attributed it to tax and regulatory cuts that have improved the business climate, driving down unemployment and putting more money in consumer wallets.
Mr. Hood, on the other hand, said he deserved credit for bringing in more money by instituting an internet sales tax collection measure.
The debate at the University of Southern Mississippi unfolded before what appeared to be a split crowd, with supporters sometimes cheering each candidate. A second debate is slated for next week in Columbus.
Hours before the men took the stage, the campaigns released their quarterly finance reports that showed Mr. Reeves with $2 million cash on hand and Mr. Hood with $1.3 million for the race’s final weeks.