PHILADELPHIA, Miss. — The Chris McDaniel campaign bus is sputtering.
That’s what a reporter was told Thursday as it became clear the Mississippi state senator challenging Republican Sen. Thad Cochran in the primary next week would be a no-show for both of his first two campaign events.
McDaniel, endorsed by former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., on Thursday, marks the tea party’s best hope for a major splash in the 2014 elections. But the recent arrest of at least two McDaniel supporters allegedly involved in the photographing of Cochran’s bedridden wife in her nursing home has thrown the entire race into flux.
Amid the flurry of talk across the state, McDaniel is pushing forward with a 25-town statewide tour to detail his “Five Promises to Mississippi” platform. But like his Senate campaign, the McDaniel bus must navigate a bumpy route to its final destination.
Jamie Peavy, who said he was a McDaniel field representative, relayed the message of McDaniel’s bus trouble at Deanco Auction. This day’s festivities had yet to begin as of 8:30 a.m., as only a few people sipped sweet tea and the parking lot muddied by days of scattered storms was just starting to fill in with cars. A day earlier, more than 700 people had shown up for the first of a two-day public auction of construction and farm equipment — the perfect political event ripe for vote picking in the South.
But Peavy was the only evidence of McDaniel’s scheduled presence on Thursday, other than a young supporter visibly disappointed by the news. The next stop on the campaign’s publicly released schedule was a “Union Bus Stop Rally” about 25 minutes southwest.
McDaniel had also been scheduled for a 7 a.m. meet and greet at a truck stop on a two-lane highway in east Philadelphia called Bobby’s Country Store, where a group of older men sipped coffee just inside the door. When McDaniel was already 30 minutes late, Grover Vining, 63, who said his stepson runs the place, found a hand-written phone message on the counter.
McDaniel wouldn’t be coming after all, it stated.
Vining, a member of Shriners International and a McDaniel supporter, said he’s voted for Cochran in the past but believes it’s time for someone new.
“He’s just been there too long and is kind of disconnected,” Vining said. “He was a great senator, represented Mississippi well, but it’s time for some new blood — that’s true for all the Senate.”
Vining said he was excited to see McDaniel at Deanco later that morning. To kill time, he directed a reporter to downtown Philadelphia, the town where three civil rights workers were murdered 50 years ago next month. They had been arrested June 21, 1964, and held at Neshoba County Jail, not far from where the old train depot now houses the town’s welcome center.
In Union, Peavy, who had gotten there early, informed a reporter the event wouldn’t be a rally at all, rather just a stop at a gas station, where McDaniel could chat with a local business owner as the bus refueled. The 1996 bus rolled into the small corner station, and McDaniel, sporting a full head of dark brown hair, a big smile and a navy suit, stepped off about 10 minutes later.
He walked inside the small station office, where the half-dozen deer heads mounted on the wall outnumbered the potential voters. He asked for the support of the woman behind the cash register — a Union native who a few minutes earlier had said she probably wouldn’t vote.
In an interview with CQ Roll Call and a Jackson-based Associated Press reporter just outside, McDaniel was asked about how his conservative platform message will rise above the noise of the scandal that broke just more than two weeks before the June 3 primary.
“What matters are the issues,” McDaniel said, before going through Cochran’s record in the Senate and decrying the incumbent’s unwillingness to debate him. “Sen. Cochran wants to talk about distractions and he wants to talk about everything in the world but his record.”
The bus rolled back out of the station —without refueling — and buzzed down to Jean’s Restaurant in Meridian, where overflowing plates of chicken pan pie and fried chicken are delivered to the lunch counter three minutes after ordering.
Peavy walked McDaniel around his hometown establishment, which was filled with enthusiastic McDaniel supporters, and the candidate asked folks to keep him in mind on June 3 as Peavy dropped campaign literature next to their plates.
Midway through his lengthy stop, McDaniel, now jacketless, stepped outside for an on-camera interview with WTOK-11, during which he stated a desire to repeal every line of the Affordable Care Act.
After a round of handshakes in the restaurant’s other dining room and another local TV interview, McDaniel was off to another "rally" at a WalMart in Newton and, according to his bus driver Larry Goff, an actual rally later in the day outside Jackson.
Hours later, the campaign announced a "major rally" with Sarah Palin on Friday.