U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, second from left, meets with Madison County School District Superintendent Ronnie McGehee, Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler and Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee at an education roundtable at the Madison Square Center for the Arts on Wednesday.
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, second from left, meets with Madison County School District Superintendent Ronnie McGehee, Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler and Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee at an education roundtable at the Madison Square Center for the Arts on Wednesday.
MADISON - U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel both have eyes on Madison County, with each candidate making stops here this week before Tuesday's election.

On Wednesday, Cochran spoke at an education roundtable event at the Madison Square Center for the Arts, which featured Ridgeland Mayor Gene F. McGee, Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler and County School Superintendent Ronnie McGehee.

McDaniel is making a trip to Madison today with a special guest - former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum. They are going to be at a barbecue at the red caboose on Main Street.

Over lunch, Cochran took McDaniel to task for statements he has made on education, saying the kinds of cuts in federal funding his opponent has called for would leave Mississippi's public schools with tough decisions.

"We'd certainly be out a lot of money," Cochran said. "Many teachers would lose their jobs and some of our schools would be forced to close. That type of leadership would lead us down the wrong road - one that would have us looking for more private funding just to try to keep our education at it's current level.

"We don't want our children finishing school halfway prepared to go to college and join the work force. We need to use whatever means we have available to have the best education system we can provide."

Holmes County Community College Vice President Don Burnham, who works from the Ridgeland campus, said he had been looking forward to sitting down with Cochran, who is a product of Mississippi's junior college system.

"I'm here today to support the effort for education in Mississippi," Burnham said. "It's very, very important that we continue to have funding for higher education, as well as the K-12 system throughout the state. If we don't have that, we're not going to have the skilled labor force to fill the jobs that we have in the state, and it would have a detrimental effect on all aspects of life in Mississippi."

Madison is one of several stops both candidates have made and will make this week, the last before the primary runoff Tuesday. (See story, page A2).

McDaniel, a plaintiffs lawyer from Ellisville who represents his home town in the state Senate, rode an anti-Washington, anti-establishment wave to edge Cochran 49.5 percent to 49 percent in the June 3 primary election. He came within a half a percent of garnering 50 percent and avoiding a runoff with Cochran.

With Thursday's appearance, McDaniel is looking to make inroads into Madison, a county Cochran stronghold, handily winning 31 of the county's 42 precincts and earning 9,476 votes to McDaniel's 5,891, or 61 percent.

McDaniel supporter Russell Latino, an attorney for the law firm Wells, Marble and Hurst, said he hopes the event will drum up enough support for McDaniel to skew those numbers in next Tuesday's runoff.

"I think there are a lot of voters who may not support him or know him," said Latino, who is listed on the flyer for the event as one of 34 official hosts. "This will give them a chance to come meet him and judge for themselves whether or not he'll make a good senator."

Since the June 3 vote, both Madison Mayor Hawkins-Butler and Ridgeland Mayor McGee, as well as a majority of other area elected officials, have endorsed Cochran. The local leaders have touted the hundreds of millions of dollars they say Cochran has secured for the county - some $380 million in infrastructure alone since 1994 - but with no local polling, it's hard to tell if the needle has moved for potential voters.

Santorum, a social conservative who rose to fame before ceding the Republican presidential nomination to Mitt Romney in 2012, has made several appearances at rallies for McDaniel around Mississippi, a state he carried during his presidential bid.

However, the former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania captured 25.9 percent of the vote in Madison County, finishing third behind Romney (42.9 percent) and Newt Gingrich (26.6 percent).

Another 2012 presidential hopeful, libertarian Ron Paul, endorsed McDaniel on June 9.

"When you see people like Senator Santorum, Dr. Ron Paul and ladies like [former Alaska Gov.] Sarah Palin getting behind Chris McDaniel, that should tell you something," Latino said. "That's a broader, more diverse group of supporters - that's one social, one fiscal and one libertarian conservative who have come out to endorse him."

The second-term state senator and Tea Party favorite's campaign has attracted national attention for a string of strange events - starting with the St. Catherine's Village break-in, in which four McDaniel supporters, including one state-level Tea Party official, conspired to sneak into the Madison nursing home to take photos of Cochran's infirmed wife while she slept.

On election night, three more McDaniel supporters, one the chair of the Central Mississippi Tea Party, called for help after being locked in the Hinds County Courthouse hours after other election officials had gone home.

A report that surfaced Tuesday tied McDaniel to Carl Ford, the lawyer who represented former Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard Sam Bowers when he was accused of murdering civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer.

Bowers was convicted and died in prison, but Ford also has ties to the League of the South, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center, has labeled as a hate group.

But none of that has deterred McDaniel's supporters, who showed up in numbers to supplant Cochran - a U.S. Senator that pro-McDaniel campaign ads claim has lost touch with his Mississippi values years ago.

One of those supporters, Ridgeland Alderman-at-Large D.I. Smith, said McDaniel will get his vote because he wants to see the country go in a different direction.

"I hope the people will come out and take some time to go by and meet him and learn more about him," Smith said Tuesday. "I'm a big believer that these congressional seats are not lifetime appointments. It's healthy for our system to get new blood and some new ideas every now and then."

Smith said he joined in the other Madison officials in thanking Cochran for his service, and was grateful for the funds he had allocated to Madison County communities over the years, but added that now it's time for a bigger conversation about spending and the legacy lawmakers will leave for the next generation.

"I changed jobs every two years when I was in the military," Smith said. "Each time, I thought I was indispensable, but someone else came along to do the job. Fresh enthusiasm can pay a lot of dividend, and I'm not satisfied with the direction our country is headed in currently."

He's is still recovering from a bicycle accident he suffered three weeks ago in which he broke his hip and one of his wrists, but Smith said he planned to attend the event in a wheelchair if he was able.

The McDaniel event is scheduled to run from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and is free to the public.