ELLISVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Sarah Palin told a friendly audience Friday that Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel would be an uncompromising opponent of debt and President Barack Obama, insisting that's the real issue in a race overshadowed by the arrests of four McDaniel supporters in a bizarre plot against six-term Sen. Thad Cochran.
"Those are distractions to take your eye off the ball," Palin told the crowd at Jones County Junior college in McDaniel's hometown, ahead of Tuesday's GOP Senate primary.
"Chris McDaniel knows that the status quo has got to go," Palin said, taking aim at Cochran. "If we are going to get America back on the right track, it's insane to assume we will get any different results from what we have been seeing by re-electing the same old guard that's been doing the same old thing... going along with Barack Obama's failed policies that have dug us so deep into debt."
McDaniel is trying to change the subject from the arrests of four of his supporters in a nursing home scandal that has eclipsed the contest. Those arrested are charged with conspiracy to illegally photograph Cochran's bedridden wife, Rose Cochran, in a nursing home. Mrs. Cochran has been institutionalized since 2001, has lost her ability to speak and is in hospice care, according to her family.
McDaniel and his supporters have raised questions about whether it's appropriate for a female aide to accompany Cochran on taxpayer-funded overseas trips. Cochran's campaign has denied any implication of wrongdoing. McDaniel says he had nothing to do with the nursing home plot.
Mississippi is central to the Republicans' goal of gaining the six seats required to take control of the Senate after the November elections. After a string of losses by tea party candidates in Georgia, North Carolina, and Kentucky, McDaniel is seen by conservatives as perhaps their best chance to oust a GOP incumbent whom and run the candidate they prefer. But the GOP establishment and its allies have showered money on incumbents like Cochran, who has a chance to become Senate Appropriations Committee chairman if he's elected to a seventh term.
But in Mississippi, the story line has jutted into bizarre territory.
The four men charged in the photo incident are McDaniel supporters. One of them, attorney Mark Mayfield of Ridgeland, is a Central Mississippi Tea Party board member who has raised campaign cash for McDaniel. Another, John Mary of Hattiesburg, took over hosting a conservative talk radio show after McDaniel left that job before being elected to the state Senate. The blogger, Clayton Kelly of Pearl, has pro-McDaniel photos on his Facebook page and anti-Cochran statements on his blog. Sager's Facebook page includes an announcement he shared for a McDaniel campaign event.
Moving on to the looming primary, McDaniel called on his supporters Friday to rally their neighbors and continue Mississippi's tradition of defiance.
"Every so often, we're just stubborn enough to look at Washington, D.C., and say 'Leave us alone,' " McDaniel said. He said he respects Cochran, but also said "career politicians are killing this country" and closed by telling the crowd "Let's send him home."
Most of Mississippi's GOP establishment has lined up behind Cochran. Gov. Phil Bryant released a radio ad reiterating support for Cochran Friday.
McDaniel is being supported by tea party groups inside and outside the state. Former presidential hopeful Rick Santorum also has endorsed the challenger.
Even some McDaniel supporters said Palin may not make much difference in the race, where voters have been bombarded with ads for months.
"People have already made up their minds," said Sarah Simmons of Gulfport, who traveled nearly two hours to the rally. "If you don't know where you stand now, you're way too late in the game."
Associated Press Writer Phillip Elliott contributed to this story.