A window into discontent in Dixie
South Carolina, long a GOP stronghold, ponders job loss and rising angst.
LONE STAR, S.C.
Leaning forward in his dark bait shack, Frank Ott points an accusing finger at a computer hung with fishing lures and comic strips: A headline on his screen says the Bush administration admits that intelligence on Iraqi weapons may have been faulty.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Ott has always been a bait seller, catching herring as a teenager and selling it to fishermen. And he's always voted Republican. Until now. Not only did he lose his shirt in the stock market; he feels the GOP is taking the country in the wrong direction - and misleading the public in the process. "I'm a lifelong Republican from the South and I'm voting for John Edwards," he says. "What does that tell you?"
Ott isn't the only one complaining in this state that's gone Republican in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter. With income disparity growing, unions weakening, and more continuous job losses than at any time since World War II, South Carolina is a prime example of the widening gap between rich Americans and those clinging, barely, to the middle class.
The comments of Ott and other South Carolinians offer a window on whether Democrats might gain a toehold in the South this fall against George W. Bush - and on how the populist messages of primary candidates are playing in the diners, town squares, and bait shops of this small but critical Southern state.
"In the South it's still an uphill battle for the Democrats, even with all the job losses," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University. "In the short term, though, the populist appeal is working to the Democrats' advantage."
On a 100-mile journey from the low country, through the hard-hit midlands, to the edge of textile territory, that battle was in motion last week. Talks with farmers, lawyers, nannies, and laid-off workers revealed a deepening frustration and an earnest search for next steps and a tarnished American dream.
"We've lost something in this country, and frankly it's upsetting," says Glenn Costenbader, a laid-off plant worker and union boss in hardscrabble Winnsboro.
The South's mythology is very much alive. In Orangeburg County, there's the aging black woman sweeping the yard of her tidy homestead with its peeling paint, cotton bolls blown into the fence and grandchildren playing by a working hand pump. Five miles down the road, bejeweled museum trustees dine on Thai ginger chicken in the town square of Elloree.
Indeed, while the top third of wage earners here make nearly $20,000 more today than 20 years ago, the bottom third has lost ground - a disparity compounded by three years of job losses and a recovery that still feels jobless to many.
For Mr. Ott, winter is a lonely business: He keeps the Lone Star Market open only so he doesn't "waste time" waiting for March and the spawning runs that draw bass fisherman to the swamps.
"There is a whole group of people in the country who feel that the recovery is under way, but the bottom half - the working class, the working poor, and the lower middle class - do not feel that at all," says Cal Jillson, a government professor at Southern Methodist University.