TUPELO, UNITED STATES (AFP) - US President Donald Trump flew to Mississippi on Monday (Nov 26) to try and save the Senate campaign of a Republican embroiled in controversy over racially tinged comments.
Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith is locked in an unexpectedly tight runoff vote on Tuesday in what should have been reliable Republican territory for the final Senate race of the 2018 midterms.
The President flew in to Tupelo, Mississippi, to rally for Ms Hyde-Smith after her campaign against a black opponent was partly derailed through comments about "public hanging" - remarks widely interpreted as alluding to Mississippi's history of lynchings.
Adding to the unease, two nooses and hate signs were found on the state capitol's grounds early Monday in Jackson, a Mississippi government spokesman told AFP. Police have launched an investigation.
Local NBC affiliate WLBT's website showed images of nooses hanging from a tree on capitol grounds.
Speaking to a crowd at the airport, gathered in front of his Air Force One airplane, Mr Trump praised Ms Hyde-Smith as "a very, very special woman who's going to do a special job" opposing "radical socialism and open borders."
FOCUS ON ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS
Much of Mr Trump's speech focused on his familiar campaign boasts about the strong US economy and his attempts to stamp out illegal immigration - even while being criticised that the new policies violate human rights.
Mr Trump yet again homed in on a group of would-be immigrants, or "caravan", that has been clashing with US border agents on the border with Mexico.
US personnel fired tear gas at migrants who attempted to rush the border from Tijuana, Mexico, in tense scenes that Mr Trump said proved the need for a crackdown.
"When you look at the news at night and you see what's happening at the border..., they're not coming through anymore, unless they come through legally," he told the crowd.
"If you want more jobs and less crime, then you have to vote Republican."
The issue resonates strongly with Mr Trump's Republican base and he was likely to repeat the line at a second rally in Biloxi later.
Should Republicans hold Ms Hyde-Smith's seat, it will secure their 53-47 Senate majority. Democrats reclaimed the House of Representatives in the midterm elections.
Ms Hyde-Smith's opponent is former congressman Mike Espy, an African American who accused his opponent of having "rejuvenated old stereotypes".
Ms Hyde-Smith, a former state lawmaker who was appointed to her US Senate seat in April to fill a vacancy, startled observers this month when she said she would be "on the front row" if one of her supporters "invited me to a public hanging".
She apologised during a recent debate with Mr Espy and insisted her remark was "twisted" by opponents for political gain.
She was also recorded telling a small group at a university that it would be "a great thing" to suppress votes of liberal students. Her campaign said that was a joke.
Mr Trump said earlier at the White House that Ms Hyde-Smith felt "very badly" about her public hanging remarks.
"It was taken a certain way, but she certainly didn't mean it," he said.
But there have been other revelations about Ms Hyde-Smith's past.
The Jackson Free Press newspaper reported that in the 1970s, Ms Hyde-Smith attended a private high school that helped white parents avoid integration efforts, and later sent her own daughter to a similar private school.
Photographs from 2014 have surfaced of Ms Hyde-Smith posing with artefacts from the Civil War-era Confederate south, which supported slavery.
As a state senator in 2001, she introduced legislation to rename a highway after Confederacy president Jefferson Davis, The Washington Post reported.
With controversy swirling, several major businesses including Walmart, AT&T and Major League Baseball have called on Ms Hyde-Smith to return their campaign donations.
Mississippi has voted reliably Republican for the past 30 years.
Ms Hyde-Smith and Mr Espy are in a runoff because no candidate gained a majority in the Nov 6 election, when far-right Republican Chris McDaniel gained 16 per cent of the vote.
Many of his supporters are expected to back Ms Hyde-Smith on Tuesday.