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Mississippi runoff heats up

Incumbent faces challenge from right

ELLISVILLE, Miss. – Chris McDaniel comes from a small town, with a skyline of church steeples and a courthouse that overshadows a memorial to Confederate soldiers.

It’s where the tea party-backed U.S. Senate candidate grew up. Where he and his wife raise their two children. Where, for more than 30 years, he’s spent most Sundays in the same Southern Baptist church.

To hear him tell it, Ellisville is the kind of place that’s disappearing in Mississippi and America, and that’s a problem.

“There are millions of us who feel like strangers in this land, an older America passing away, a new America rising to take its place,” McDaniel said this past week. “We recoil from that culture. It’s foreign to us. It’s alien to us. … It’s time to stand and fight. It’s time to defend our way of life again.”

Such a defense requires an enemy, and for the 41-year-old lawyer and state senator, that’s the role played by Mississippi’s senior U.S. senator, Thad Cochran.

McDaniel came close to knocking off Cochran in the June 3 primary, and in the days since, the challenger has toured Mississippi relentlessly and unleashed a blistering indictment of his 76-year-old opponent.

Cochran may be “a Mississippi gentleman,” McDaniel says, but the June 24 runoff is a chance “for our generation to save the republic.”

Such rhetoric exasperates Cochran and his backers, who campaign almost entirely on the argument that Mississippi can’t afford to lose his seniority in the Senate.

McDaniel has won the support of tea party conservatives like Sarah Palin and libertarian hero Ron Paul who view his campaign as their best shot to unseat a sitting Republican senator in this midterm election.

But it is the support McDaniel received in his home of Jones County, almost 90 percent of the vote in the primary, and places like it that helped drive his slim statewide edge in that first vote.

Cochran supporters fail to see the charm.

A group formed by Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the national GOP and a two-term Mississippi governor, has run television ads pointing out the antics of McDaniel’s supporters. Among them are allegations they illegally obtained photographs of Cochran’s wife, Rose, who has lived in a nursing home with dementia for years.

That characterization of irresponsibility, along with Cochran’s emphasis on what he’s done for Mississippi, has forced McDaniel to play some defense of his own as the primary campaign has shifted into the runoff.

While hammering Cochran as an architect of spending for home-state projects, McDaniel has promised “to fight for Mississippi,” particularly its shipyards fueled by Navy contracts.

When Cochran allies hit him for calling federal involvement in education unconstitutional, McDaniel softened his previous position and said Mississippi shouldn’t sacrifice the $800 million it receives in federal tax dollars for public education.

After saying “it would be a hard vote” to have supported federal aid for the state after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, McDaniel has repeated often it’s one he would have made.

In doing so, he has struggled to explain just how he would avoid the deficit spending for which he blames Cochran.