A window into discontent in Dixie

South Carolina, long a GOP stronghold, ponders job loss and rising angst.

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.

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.

The question now is whether despair will translate to votes. Many here won't support a Democrat, on principle. Take brothers Dennis and John Stoudenmire: Holding onto their 100 acres by working as farm mechanics, they shrug at the mention of Mr. Bush. They've voted for Democrats before, they say - and lived to regret it. "People remember Carter and the [Soviet grain] embargo and they're still sour about that," says Dennis Stoudenmire. "In fact, we had to quit farming over it."

Fifty miles north in Columbia, lawyer Linda Warner fears the country is "going soft." Democrats are pitching victimhood, she says, and national security tops her list of concerns: "If we need to be the world's policeman to stay safe, then so be it."

But outside the capital, in outlying areas where thousands of jobs were lost last year, it's a different story. Low-rent trailers line Route 321. At Jimbo's pool hall, Rosalind Brown is leaning toward retired Gen. Wesley Clark. The war "was a good idea at the time," she says, "but now they need to send those troops on home."

Up the highway, wetlands give way to textile territory in a region torn by layoffs. Carroll Doherty, a pollster at the Pew Research Center, says that a stronger than usual showing for Democrats is possible this year: "If the economy tanks, the Democrats will do better."

But if people here are low on cash, Winnsboro men are lower still on patriotism. At Dalee's pub - the unofficial headquarters for Local 5841 of the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) - they blame the closing of the Mack plant, and last year's loss of 1,200 jobs, on "corporate greed." Official unemployment here hovers around 10 percent, but some locals say that up to a third of people are idle. "I'm a big man, but I've had meat only once this week," says a gruff union boss who calls himself "Big Joe."

As day faded to night on Thursday, the waitress at Dalee's turned the TV from a pool tournament to the Democrats' debate - and the crowd shifted to a barstool version of Modern Politics 101. Laid-off engineer Terry Bass riffed on the Rev. Al Sharpton's booming invectives and even Big Joe had nice things to say: Mr. Sharpton "says what's in his heart." But on Sen. Joe Lieberman, he asks, without irony, "Lieberman who?"

Conversation winds from the Patriot Act to veterans to corporate greed. Always in the background is Iraq. "The next president will focus more on home," says Mr. Bass, hopefully. "He'll focus on our vets and our elderly and healthcare - that's where this country needs to be."

For Big Joe, cultural differences in the South are fading. But experts say that could change if Bush taps into Southern opposition on issues like abortion and gay marriage - topics that have worked in the past to bring conservatives to polls. How that strategy plays this year could be key to the election, many say.

"What's astounding is that you could tell a lower-middle-class Southerner who has lost a textile job ... that abortion is the real issue," says SMU's Dr. Jillson. "Right now, it looks like that guy is listening to the Democrats. But the Democrats are now in the eye of the hurricane and pretty soon the eye is going to move off - and the real storm is going to be upon them."

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