Southern Discomfort

Buchanan's populism resonates with South Carolina's workers

There's the Chamber of Commerce version of South Carolina, and then there's the version that Brent Little sees as he tours the state repairing the air-conditioning at textile plants. The Chamber spouts glossy statistics about record economic growth and foreign investment. But just last summer, Little saw four textile mills on his route close down--and more shutdowns loom. "Everywhere you go, everybody's either running slow or scared they're going to shut down," says Little. "We pay politicians loads of money, and they just get us deeper in trouble."

Little is based in Camden, S.C., pop. 7,000, a microcosm of the state as it prepared to vote in its Mar. 2 GOP primary. There are new foreign-owned companies. There is old money in the horse country north of town. There's a poor African-American underclass.

TOUGH TALK. Most important in this election season, there's a feeling in Camden that except for Pat Buchanan, politicians don't really know what's good for the town, the state, or the country. Sure, job creation in South Carolina is at a 30-year high, and new jobs are paying a third more than the old ones. But at Camden's DuPont Co. textile plant, employment is just a third of its peak level, and a new round of layoffs is expected this month. "We're losing jobs now. The textile people are catching it, and nobody has been listening to them," says Philip Minges Jr., Camden's mayor.

That could be bad news for Bob Dole. Dole has lined up Senator Strom Thurmond, Governor David M. Beasley, and former Governor Carroll A. Campbell Jr., as well as fundamentalist Christian leaders, behind his campaign. But his message rings hollow in Camden. "Dole is wishy-washy. He doesn't say what he's for," gripes Claude H. Boykin, who repairs Studebaker cars in a shop his father founded. "He's got a background of backing down."

Steve Forbes is also hard for many to swallow. He hasn't campaigned in the state, and people don't like his negative ads. And the wealthy publisher's privileged background and overwhelming focus on a flat tax leave people cold. "He's a one-issue candidate, and his one issue I have reservations about," says Dale Thiel, owner of Dale Thiel Stables. JoAnn Harris, owner of the Maid of Honor cleaning service, agrees. "I thought about Steve Forbes to begin with," she says. "But I'm for someone who's for the mainstream American. I'm not wealthy, and I'm not dirt poor, and I want someone who knows what that's like."

Enter Buchanan. These days, he's the talk of Camden. He mixes his messages of protectionism, nativism, and extreme anti-abortionism with made-to-order South Carolina riffs supporting all-male enrollment at the Citadel military school and the state's right to fly the Confederate flag. "Buchanan is stealing the class war-fare thing from the Democrats," marvels Thiel.

Buchanan's populist rallying cries work well with many voters such as the workers at the DuPont plant. But some say Buchanan is too extreme. "He's way out there. I couldn't vote for him," says Shirlee P. Mills, a 27-year veteran of the DuPont plant. At the nearby AlliedSignal Inc. plant, maintenance mechanic Jerry Bragg understands that protectionism is flawed.

Still, Bragg finds Buchanan's passion winning. "Pat may be a little extreme, but at least he says what he believes in instead of what people want to hear," says Bragg. So far, Buchanan's message could be a winner in Camden--and towns like it all across the South.

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