By By Buddy Bynum / editor
Aug. 4, 2002
There are defining moments in every political campaign that give voters a real insight into the candidates' psyche, a glimpse deep into their political souls.
For U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering and U.S. Rep. Ronnie Shows such moments came as they sweltered on a hot stage last week, one on one and face to face with some of the real people who will decide which candidate keeps a seat in Congress.
First, Pickering, the clear winner of the debate at the Neshoba County Fair. The 38-year-old father of five and three-term congressman landed four essentially unanswered body blows:
Illegal campaign contributions: He said Shows had "accepted more illegal campaign contributions than any other member of the Mississippi congressional delegation," and he's right. It happened in Shows' 1998 campaign when he gave back some $85,000 in contributions he said he didn't know at the time had been illegal. He said he was unfamiliar with federal election law.
Pickering saddled Shows with the heavy baggage of the liberal national Democratic Party, illustrated by Shows' acceptance of $5,000 in contributions from one of the national politicians most despised by Mississippians U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. The crowd booed at the mention of Clinton's name.
Pickering reminded voters of Shows' last-minute, tepid endorsement of the nomination of U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering to a seat on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. His father's nomination was defeated on a party line vote in a Senate committee. Neither Shows nor his compatriot in the Judge Pickering nomination U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson had a vote in the Senate committee, but they did have a voice in the process. Shows and Thompson were alone among Mississippi's major political figures in either opposing Judge Pickering's nomination or, in Shows case, saying too little, too late.
And, in a very astute political move that was greeted with thunderous applause, Pickering reminded voters assembled under the tin-roofed pavilion at the fair's Founders Square that "Neshoba County, my opponent did not want you." He was right about that, too, as Shows fought aggressively and unsuccessfully to keep Neshoba County voters out of the redrawn 3rd Congressional District. Pickering has represented Neshoba County since 1996.
In my opinion, Shows failed to respond adequately to any of these points, something of a disappointing political meltdown, as if in the heat and humidity the burden of an adequate response was simply too heavy a weight. Shows works best outside the media glare, in quiet phone calls to supporters and non-supporters, in smaller groups, one on one with voters, and the 2002 Neshoba County Fair debate was not his finest hour.
The fair is an outstanding forum for political debates, for seeing candidates close up, without aides hanging on their arms or whispering in their ears, free from the staged rhetoric of campaign commercials. When the debate clock starts, they are on their own. They define their own values.
And that is precisely why this debate at this fair was so illustrative. We got a glimpse into the character and an expression of the values of both Shows and Pickering, and they are different.
Voters on the scene in these types of personal venues notice things that television commercials just can't convey:
The expression on Pickering's face when he talked about values, and his genuine affection when he talks of how his wife and children live with him in the Washington area.
Pickering's newfound aggressiveness on separating himself from Shows and turning the tables on misrepresentations of his record.
Shows' downhome, aw, shucks, look when he misspoke about wanting to represent voters in Jackson, instead of Washington where Congress convenes.
Or of skimming over another error when Shows spoke of visiting troops from Mississippi in Incirlick, Greece, when the U.S. base is in Incirlick, Turkey. That's okay, though; the troops knew what country they were in.
Shows' campaign has one central theme he's for the "common man" against the "greedy corporate interests." He presents himself as an independent, almost rouge, player in national Democratic Party affairs. He says he votes on issues, not philosophies, ideologies or political values. He may think all that sounds good, but the problem some folks seem to have with Shows is that they don't really know how he's going to vote on a particular issue. This approach may appeal to some voters in the 3rd Congressional District, but it didn't catch on with the Neshoba County Fair crowd. They reacted positively to Pickering.
As voters begin to sift through the rhetoric, charges and counter-charges that are all part of every political campaign, the ones who saw this debate on August 1, 2002, know who won. And they also know this race for a seat in Congress from Mississippi's 3rd District while it's likely to be close is Pickering's to lose.