The much maligned mule is getting a day of celebration but will have to share the spotlight with a breed of even sorrier reputation–the politicians.

The Mule Day parade set for Saturday is the highlight of a six-day celebration honoring the lowly animal. U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis plans to set aside debates on the economy and the Iraq war to climb aboard a mule for the parade.

“I’ll bring my saddle and bridle and ol’ Pete,” the Tennessee Democrat promised. “He’s a good racking mule; he’s one in 10,000.”

Up to 150,000 people are expected in the city of 33,000 about 40 miles south of Nashville, competing for space with an estimated 2,500 mules who are the center of attention.

The festivities, stubbornly held since 1934, grew out of the town’s reputation for breeding good mules. Mule trading started in Columbia in the 1800s and became a major industry, although the region is now better known for another transportation product, GM automobiles.

Don’t underestimate the significance of the event. In 2006, Mule Day was included on a Homeland Security database of places vulnerable to terror attacks. The Empire State building and Times Square were not.

Mule Day activities are a showcase of rural Tennessee culture: a type of Appalachian folk dance called clogging, a log loading competition, and country and bluegrass music. For the more cerebral, there’s a mule and donkey seminar.

On Wednesday, a 34-unit mule train pulled into town, completing a three-day, 54-mile journey on state roads.

“Some drivers got a little mad,” acknowledged D.C. Neeley, the wagonmaster. “That’s just part of it.”

Harvey Spann, a Mule Day organizer and the proud owner of four mules himself, said mules may not be man’s best friend but they can be an affectionate alternative.

“They’re a different