By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A white Republican U.S. senator from Mississippi said during a debate with her African-American Democratic opponent Tuesday night that she apologizes to people who were offended when she complimented a supporter by saying she would attend a "public hanging" if the supporter invited her.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith's remark was caught on video that was released last week. It has brought widespread criticism both inside and outside Mississippi, a state with a history of racially motivated lynchings.
"For anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statement," Hyde-Smith said Tuesday during a televised debate with Democrat Mike Espy.
The apology was a new approach for Hyde-Smith, who repeatedly refused to answer questions about the hanging comment at a news conference Nov. 12, the day after the publisher of a liberal-leaning news site posted the video on Facebook and Twitter.
The clip shows Hyde-Smith praising a cattle rancher at a Nov. 2 campaign event in Tupelo by saying: "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row." Shortly after the video's release, she said in a statement that the expression was an "exaggerated expression of regard" and said it is "ridiculous" to read any negative connotation into it.
"There has never been anything, not one thing, in my background to ever indicate I had ill will toward anyone," Hyde-Smith, a former state agriculture commissioner, said Tuesday night. "I've never been hurtful to anyone. I've always tried to help everyone. I also recognize that this comment was twisted and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me, a political weapon used for nothing but personal and political gain by my opponent. That's the type of politics Mississippians are sick and tired of."
Espy responded during the debate: "No one's twisted your comments because your comments were live, you know, it came out of your mouth. I don't know what's in your heart but I know what came out of your mouth. It went viral in the first three minutes around the world. And so it's caused our state harm. It's given our state another black eye that we don't need. It's just rejuvenated those stereotypes that we don't need anymore."
Hyde-Smith is the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress. Espy is a former congressman and U.S. agriculture secretary, is seeking to become the state's first African-American senator since Reconstruction.
During the debate, Hyde-Smith questioned a $750,000 lobbying contract Espy had in 2011 with the Cocoa and Coffee Board of the Ivory Coast. She noted that the country's ex-president, Laurent Gbagbo, is being tried in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, including, Hyde-Smith said, "murder, rape and unspeakable things against young girls."
"I don't know how many Mississippians can really relate to an income that can command a $750,000 check from one person for a lobbying job," said Hyde-Smith, who is a cattle rancher.
Espy, who is an attorney, said: "I found out later that this guy, the president, was a really bad guy. I resigned the contract."
Federal registration papers show Espy terminated the contract two weeks before its scheduled end.
Hours before Tuesday's debate, President Donald Trump defended Hyde-Smith's "public hanging" remark, saying at the White House that she loves the people of Mississippi and the U.S.
"It was just sort of said in jest," Trump said. "She's a tremendous woman and it's a shame that she has to go through this."
Walmart asked Hyde-Smith to return a $2,000 campaign contribution because of the hanging remark. Walmart spokeswoman LeMia Jenkins said Tuesday that the company donated to Hyde-Smith Nov. 8, three days before the release of the video with the "public hanging" remark.
"Sen. Hyde-Smith's recent comments clearly do not reflect the values of our company and associates," Jenkins said in a statement. "As a result, we are withdrawing our support and requesting a refund of all campaign donations."
Hyde-Smith's campaign did not respond to questions from The Associated Press about whether it would refund Walmart's contribution.
Senate races rarely gain national attention in Mississippi, a deeply conservative state. But this matchup — the last major race of the 2018 midterms — has drawn scrutiny after Hyde-Smith's remarks.
Trump is traveling to Mississippi for two Hyde-Smith rallies Monday on the eve of the election. Former Vice President Joe Biden has endorsed Espy.
Hyde-Smith was appointed to the Senate to temporarily succeed longtime Sen. Thad Cochran, who retired in April amid health concerns. She is the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress.
Hyde-Smith and Espy each received about 41 percent of the vote when four candidates were on the ballot Nov. 6. If she wins the Nov. 27 runoff, Hyde-Smith would give Republicans a 53-47 majority in the Senate.
Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed from Washington.
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