U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran was swarmed by the media Thursday after his speech at the Neshoba County Fair. .
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran was swarmed by the media Thursday after his speech at the Neshoba County Fair. .
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran used the Neshoba County Fair to kick off his general election campaign in front of a receptive and unusually large crowd that was expecting political fireworks.

Concerns about tea party protests and disruptions never materialized, though. Only a handful appeared, some of them with duct tape over their mouths carrying hand-made signs reading "betrayed" and "RINO."

Cochran and his Democratic challenger, former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, spoke to thousands of people Thursday at the Neshoba County Fair, the size crowd normally seen in statewide election years.

Although Cochran and Childers gave back-to-back speeches, they did not pass each other or have any interaction on stage or backstage. Cochran did not mention his primary opponent Chris McDaniel during his 10-minute speech.

Cochran discussed reducing the deficit, his opposition to Obamacare, including a measure he sponsored to repeal it, his anticipated return to Chairman of Appropriations as well as his work as ranking member of the Agriculture Committee and the recently passed Farm Bill. (See a video of the speech here: http://bit.ly/WZheke.)

"Mississippi farmers are worth fighting for," Cochran said. And he addressed an issue people have been talking a lot about.

"If you happened to walk by a television during the past few months, you might have seen or heard some things about me," the 76-year-old Cochran said. "Some pictures even made me look a little bit old."

He deadpanned that he's not bothered by it - "not too much."

Then he spoke of "another Republican" who once spoke at the Fair who was also criticized for his age.

"I don't know about you, but I think Ronald Reagan turned out to be a great President," the six-term Senator said, receiving the strongest round of applause his entire speech.

Cochran launched into his list of promises if re-elected, which included repealing ObamaCare, supporting agriculture and stopping wasteful spending, among other things.

"I know people get frustrated with Washington. I do too," he said. "I share that frustration because there's so much at stake, and there's a lot that needs to be done."

Cochran got frequent applause from a crowd seated on long wooden benches, their feet on the sawdust-strewn dirt, inside the tin-roofed pavilion where his campaign had handed out hundreds of "THAD' signs and T-shirts.

He called the federal health overhaul a "disaster" and said he wants to repeal it. The former Senate Appropriations Committee chairman also said he opposes wasteful federal spending.

Cochran said he will represent all Mississippians and asked for the votes of both those who did and didn't support him in the primary.

The group of people waving Childers signs was smaller.

Childers told the audience that he supports increasing the minimum wage and legislating equal pay for women and men who do the same jobs.

Without mentioning President Barack Obama, Childers also said Mississippi should consider expanding Medicaid to cover an additional 300,000 people under the federal health care overhaul - something the state's Republican governor and Republican-controlled state Legislature have not done.

"Poverty doesn't know a political party," Childers, 56, said. "Lack of education doesn't know a political party. Lack of health care doesn't know a political party. Unemployment doesn't know a political party, and ours is the highest in the nation right now."

Childers said the Senate seat belongs to "the people."

"Over 16 Million dollars was spent on this past primary - most of it from out of state," he said. "And none of that money was spent on pressing problems in our state like education, healthcare, schools, hospitals nor was it spent on you or any other Mississippian."

Childers denounced the recent Senate Republican primary - which McDaniel has yet to concede - calling it "divisive," "ugly" and "corrupt."

"This race should never have been about personalities, or anything else other than issues," he said.

Childers said he has accepted a chance to debate at the University of Mississippi this fall, although Cochran made no mention accepting in his speech.

The former Congressman promised the standing-room-only audience his support for an amendment to balance the national budget, to protect Social Security and to support Medicare.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Washington, D.C. is broken," he proclaimed. "It no longer works for working people."

Despite the warm welcome from most Fairgoers, Cochran did not draw the same reaction from the handful of people who wore red tape over their mouths.

The week leading up to the Fair, a statement was released by the South Mississippi Tea Party urging its supporters to stop a "giant, harmonious love-fest," as they coined it, by state Republican leaders.

Only about 20 of these silent supporters showed, but held signs that read "Betrayed," "Alienated 184,000 voters" and "RINO [Republican In Name Only]" while the Senator spoke.

Among the protesters was Larry Eubanks, of Star, who wore a T-shirt bearing the logo of state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the man Cochran defeated by 7,667 votes.

Eubanks shook hands with Childers after the speeches and said he's considering voting for the Democrat.

"It's not over till it's over. Cochran did not win the election," Eubanks said.

"We want to let Cochran know that it's not over 'til it's over,' Eubanks said. "We suspect foul play.'

McDaniel has said repeatedly that he intends to challenge his loss, but he hasn't said when that will happen. He also has not released any documents to substantiate his claims of voting irregularities.

Earlier, state Speaker of the House Philip Gunn addressed the divide between the Republican Party calling it the "800 pound gorilla under the pavilion."

"The enemy is not other conservatives. The enemy is not even the Democratic Party," Gunn said. "The enemy is out-of-control spending, government dependency, poor education, attacks on our religious freedoms and attacks on your right to bear arms." (See story, page 9A.)

On the other hand, Gov. Phil Bryant did not acknowledge the recent Republican primary, but instead, focused more on the topics of jobs, immigration and education. (See story page 9A).

Later that day at a press conference, Bryant said the divide in the party has happened before and will heal over time.

"It can't be a policy issue. That's why I know we will be fine," Bryant said. "We are working for conservative causes in Mississippi. This Republican party is still united."

Bryant at the press conference commended Cochran for his speech earlier that day and said McDaniel needs to decide when he will challenge the election.

"If there are any [voting] irregularities, we want to know," he said. "If there are not any, we want to know it."