Nov. 21 (UPI) -- Republican Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democratic challenger Mike Epsy squared off in a debate Tuesday night, a week ahead of a runoff vote that could narrow the GOP's majority in the upper chamber.
Hyde-Smith's re-election campaign has been in damage control mode for nearly three weeks, since she was captured on video joking that she would attend a public hanging.
The controversy began at a campaign stop in Tupelo on Nov. 2 while she spoke to supporters, including cattle rancher Colin Hutchinson, who'd spoken to her for a few moments.
"If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row," Hyde-Smith quipped.
Hyde-Smith was appointed to the Senate by Gov. Phil Bryant earlier this year after the retirement of Thad Cochran. Her remarks in a southern state with such a notorious lynching history drew swift and harsh condemnation.
"For anyone that was offended by my comments I certainly apologize," Hyde-Smith said at the debate Tuesday night. "There was no ill-will, no ill-intent whatsoever in my statement.
"In nearly 20 years of service ... I have worked with all Mississippians. It didn't matter their race, their age, their income -- that's my record.
"This comment was twisted and it was turned into a weapon to be used against me, a political weapon."
The African-American Espy dismissed the apology.
"I don't know what's in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth," he said.
Hyde-Smith didn't apologize at first, saying it was an "exaggerated expression of regard" for her friend Hutchinson.
The candidates hit each other on other issues, as well, Tuesday night. Espy slammed Hyde-Smith for reading from prepared remarks -- and she condemned him for his lobbying efforts in recent years, which she said included taking $750,000 from a "foreign dictator."
Mississippi voters will send one of the candidates to the Senate in next Tuesday's runoff. If Espy wins, it would narrow Republicans' lead in the chamber to just one.