Democratic congressional candidate Travis Childers isn't afraid to get dirty to win.
"Let me tell y'all something mighty quick because I know y'all didn't come to a cow sale to hear a politician," Childers said recently as he stepped into a muddy stockyard pen, wearing a suit and black dress shoes. "I'll be responsive to the needs of north Mississippians."
Childers — a socially conservative county official from the far northeastern corner of the state — is trying to wrest a congressional seat away from the Republicans in the deeply conservative state.
Actually, he's trying to win the seat twice.
Childers faces Republican Greg Davis, the mayor of Southaven, in a May 13 special election runoff to serve the final months of a seat vacated by Roger Wicker, a Republican appointed to the U.S. Senate when Trent Lott resigned.
After the runoff, Childers, Davis and two other candidates will be on the Nov. 4 general election ballot, seeking a two-year term that starts next January. The runoff winner will be the incumbent with a likely advantage in fundraising and name recognition.
Democrats are hoping for a repeat of this past Saturday's congressional election in Louisiana, where a conservative Democrat won a seat long held by a Republican.
The politics of perception
In both Deep South states, the Republicans have tried to hurt the Democratic congressional candidates by tying them to presidential candidate Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Democratic congressional candidates, running on opposition to abortion and support of gun rights, say their races are not a referendum on the national party.
Despite the strong conservative leanings in a state that has voted Republican in every presidential race since 1980, political scientist Marty Wiseman said Mississippi's 1st District is "a very winnable district" for the Democrats this year — partly because of Democrats' apparent momentum in the presidential race.
The race also has drawn attention from the highest levels: The White House said Vice President Dick Cheney will appear at a Davis campaign rally May 12, the day before the special election.
The 1st District, with about a 75 percent white voting-age population, stretches from the Delta flatlands on its western edge to the Appalachian foothills in the northeast. The area's furniture manufacturing industry has eroded over the past two decades, but a new Toyota plant is being built near Tupelo.
Childers has signed a pledge not to approve any international trade agreements if he's elected, saying that deals such as NAFTA have made jobs disappear.
Davis, for his part, has signed a pledge not to increase taxes. "I'm a firm believer that the people in this district know better what to do with their money than government," Davis said.
The winner of the runoff will serve the final months of the two-year term Wicker started in January 2007. Republican Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Wicker to the U.S. Senate this past December after Lott's resignation.
Pressing the flesh
Childers, 50, is chancery clerk in Prentiss County and is getting help from the Blue Dogs, a group of conservative congressional Democrats.
Davis, 42, lives on the western end of the district and is mayor of Southaven, a fast-growing bedroom community just south of Memphis, Tenn.
In the air-conditioned bar overlooking the manicured 10th tee of the Tupelo Country Club one day last week, Davis mingled with an after-work crowd waiting to hear from the new University of Mississippi football coach.
People were largely receptive to Davis' small-government message as he and his wife, Suzann, chatted them up during the cocktail hour before the coach's speech. But Davis met some resistance, not because of his issues but because of the tone of the campaign.
As Greg Davis bought Ole Miss raffle tickets, Suzann Davis tried to solicit a vote for her husband.
"You don't want a Democrat to win, now do you?" Suzann Davis asked the seller with a smile.
The seller, Salley Agnew, didn't respond.
In an interview after she walked away from Davis, Agnew — a 34-year-old homemaker and part time saleswoman — said she usually supports Republicans. But she said she voted for Childers in the special election and plans to support the Democrat again in the runoff.
"I feel like both candidates are Republican, even though one of them is registered as a Democrat," Agnew said. "To be registered as a Democrat doesn't mean you're a Nancy Pelosi Democrat — not in Mississippi."