An emotional local issue - hardship in South Carolina's textile industry - threatens to hurt George Bush in the pivotal ``Super Saturday'' primary here March 5. Vice-President Bush, hewing to White House policy, strongly opposes a bill that would halt the rapid growth of textile imports into the United States. But his stand could lose votes in textile-producing regions of the state.
A surge of imports has thrown 30,000 South Carolinians out of work in recent years and closed 92 textile and apparel plants since 1980. Robert Dole and Pat Robertson, both challenging Mr. Bush here, have pounced on the issue as a certain vote-getter.
The GOP candidates regard the South Carolina primary as a pivotal contest. The outcome may affect voting patterns across the South three days later, on Super Tuesday, when primaries will be held in 14 Southern and border states.
The candidates' fight over textiles is getting splashed all over the front pages in Columbia, Greenville, and other cities in this state. It confirms an axiom of American elections - that ``all politics is local'' - even at the presidential level.
In Iowa last month, it was agricultural problems that got top billing. Pierre (Pete) du Pont IV, who wanted to slash farm subsidies, was plowed under. In New Hampshire, it was the Seabrook nuclear power plant issue that made Michael Dukakis a local hero - he opposed the plant - and helped him roll up a big margin.
The textile issue, however, has major national and international implications.
Bush argues that clamping down on textile imports could bring retaliation by other nations against a wide range of American industries.
But at a nationally televised debate in Atlanta Sunday, Senator Dole retorted:
``Every time I hear this word retaliation ... I'm reminded that Japan and South Korea and Taiwan already block Florida oranges and Georgia peaches and Alabama melons.
``In fact, an Alabama watermelon would cost you about $55 in Tokyo. You can't even ship certain rice into Japan unless it's in 25-pound gift bags,'' Dole said.
``Let's be sensible, realistic,'' he added. ``We're talking about American jobs. We're not talking about protectionism.''
Dole noted that foreign countries already control 54 percent of the US apparel market.
The proposal supported by Dole and Mr. Robertson would limit the increase of imports to 1 percent a year. Supporters contend that tough action is essential to preserve not only the textile industry, but also America's manufacturing base against low-cost imports.
Jack Kemp, the other major GOP candidate in South Carolina, rejects such concerns, however. During an interview here, he noted that a number of the nations that export textiles and apparel are struggling democracies with deep economic problems. Some of them, such as the Philippines, are also battling communist insurgencies.
During the Atlanta debate, Mr. Kemp asked: ``How are you going to create freedom in Latin America if you turn your back on the trade that they need to bring prosperity?''
There is, however, sympathy across the South for action on textiles. The industry is a mainstay of the Southern economy.
Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, who has endorsed Dole, noted during a brief interview here that across the country in recent years, 300,000 jobs have been lost in textiles, 250 textile plants have been closed, and 1,000 apparel plants have been lost.
Robertson, like Dole, hopes to pick up thousands of textile workers' votes. He says the worst part of the problem is that many jobs are being lost to communist nations, such as China, where a ``textile worker gets 25 cents an hour. Do you want American workers to get 25 cents an hour?'' he asked the vice-president during the Atlanta debate.
Robertson claims textile imports from China are up from 230 million yards per year to 1.8 billion yards per year in the past decade. Imports from the Soviet Union have risen ``7,000 percent in two years,'' he says, adding:
``I don't believe that we can continue to permit the deindustrialization of America. I'm for free trade ... but it's got to be fair. ... I don't want to preside over Uncle Sucker. I want to preside over Uncle Sam. I know the American workers are hurting. ... I don't see how we can possibly lose jobs in America in order to enhance the standard of living of workers in communist China or communist Russia.''
The vice-president counters that the situation is not being kept in context. US textile plants are operating at 94 percent of capacity, and 2,700 jobs have been added in the past year. Things are on the mend.
Kemp says he supports imports from countries with free markets, not China, the Soviet Union, or Iran. But the answer isn't protectionism, he says.
Responding to Robertson and Dole, he says: ``We would be making a mistake under [their] leadership. The same mistake that was made in 1929 and '30, when a Republican Congress caused the worst trade war in the history of this world with the Smoot-Hawley Act.''
Kemp warns: ``You would hurt not only the textile workers of South Carolina. You would hurt the steel worker, the auto worker, the factory worker. You would hurt the poor, the families, and frankly you would devastate Kansas and Iowa and other Midwest farm states'' that rely on exports.
The real answers, Kemp says, will come from lower taxes, lower interest rates, and stable currency exchange rates, which can help make the American textile industry the most efficient in the world.
The issue has Bush concerned. His aides say that Dole may be preparing a TV commercial that takes something Bush said two years ago about the textile problem - ``c'est la vie, that's the way life is'' - out of context. Bush was referring to disagreements with some of his supporters about the issue.
Dole's office here will neither confirm nor deny the report about the TV ad. ``How do they [the Bush campaign] know it if it's true?'' says a Dole aide. ``And if it's not true, why are they saying it? Either way it's sinister.''
With the textile industry cranking up a major ad campaign in South Carolina to support the import bill, the issue promises to get even hotter by Saturday.