WAKEFIELD, Va. — Across the country, several states host annual time-honored festivals mixing fun, food and politics.
In Iowa, there's the state fair, which is particularly political before the presidential caucuses.
In Kentucky, there’s Fancy Farm, a one-day event hailed as the world's largest picnic.
And in Virginia, there's Shad Planking, which took place here Wednesday afternoon in rural Virginia.
The event — named after shad fish cooked on wooden planks — kicked into high gear this year’s most high-profile, and maybe most competitive, political contest: the race for Virginia governor.
This year Shad Planking fell right before Sunday’s Democratic debate (moderated by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell), the June 9 Democratic primary, and the November general election. In attendance Wednesday were three of the four gubernatorial candidates: Republican Bob McDonnell, and Democrats Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran. The fourth candidate, Democrat Creigh Deeds, skipped the event, campaigning instead in Southwest Virginia.
According to Nathan Gonzales of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, the race for Virginia governor — as well as Shad Planking — turns the page on the 2008 election cycle and signifies the beginning of the next one, which starts with this year’s gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey. It then moves to the 2010 midterms and concludes with the next presidential contest in 2012.
Jennifer Duffy, who monitors gubernatorial and Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, adds that the event demonstrates which candidates — by assembling volunteers and plastering signs throughout the fairgrounds — have the organizational strength heading into the Democratic primary, and later the general election.
But most of all, it’s an event where attendees drink beer, eat the shad and listen to the politicians speak. "Shad Planking is like a carnival for candidates," Duffy says.
But she adds that it has this difference from other political festivals across the country: "No rides. No smelly animals — except they do have smelly, bony fish."
Candidates trade lighthearted barbs
The star attractions at Shad Planking were the three gubernatorial candidates, who delivered remarks near the end of the event. The speeches were full of lighthearted jabs at their opponents.
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McDonnell, the state’s former attorney general who’s running unopposed for the GOP nomination, directed most of his jokes at McAuliffe, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Calling McAuliffe a “professional fundraiser,” McDonnell joked that McAuliffe heard there would be a lot of “big fish” at Shad Planking. “He just didn’t know we meant that literally.”
He then lampooned the Democrat for spending millions of dollars in the race. "He has created 100 jobs for the people of Virginia," McDonnell said. "I want to thank him for doing his part to stimulate the economy."
McAuliffe took the stage next, poking fun at McDonnell’s long-winded remarks. "I don't need any windmills off the coast of Virginia Beach,” he joked. “We have Bob McDonnell."
Moran, the former state representative, spoke last and directed his aim at McAuliffe, saying he saw the wealthy friend to Bill and Hillary Clinton "setting up the martini bar” on his way into the event.
The sign war
The most dominant images at Shad Planking were all the political signs bearing the candidates’ names. Thousands of them adorned the road heading into the event. And thousands more filled the fairgrounds — on trees, on beers trucks, in the ground and even in the air. (McAuliffe had an airplane fly over the event with this sign: “New Energy, New Jobs, Vote Terry.”)
Not surprisingly, the deep-pocketed McAuliffe easily won the sign war at Shad Planking. During his speech, the Democrat provocatively mentioned his signs, perhaps referring to the fact that many of them had been stolen — or maybe referring to something else.
"It isn't about the size of the sign,” he said. “It is about keeping it up all night."
McDonnell proclaimed himself the winner of the sign war among the GOP gubernatorial candidates — hardly a feat given that he’s the lone Republican in the race.
As for Moran, his campaign decided not to compete in the sign war. Instead, it eagerly poked fun at all the money McAuliffe has poured into the race. Inside Moran’s tent, the Beatles song “Can’t Buy Me Love” constantly played on an iPod.
The Moran campaign also handed out beer cups that read, “Money isn’t everything… Fighting for Virginia is.”
Advice: Don’t try the shad
There was plenty of other color at the event. Attendees drank beer and smoked cigars. A band on stage played songs like “Mustang Sally” and “A Hard Day’s Night.” McAuliffe’s campaign even hired a person in a chicken costume to hold a sign that read, “Ask me about Terry’s energy plan.” (The answer: McAuliffe wants to convert chicken waste into energy.)
And then there was the shad, which was cooked on wooden planks, cut up and served to those in attendance, along with fried fish, coleslaw, baked beans, pickles and sweet tea.
To put it kindly, shad is an acquired taste. It tastes like sardines, and is filled with bones.
That, however, didn’t stop McAuliffe — ever the politician — from describing the fish this way: "It is delicious."
But here’s a bit of advice from a reporter who has tried the shad: stick to the fried fish.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints