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Issue in North Carolina Race: It's the Economy

Republican Elizabeth Dole and Democrat Erskine Bowles are focusing on jobs as the closely watched Senate contest tightens.

November 01, 2002|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

NEWTON, N.C. — Evidence of the anxieties roiling this country town was as near as the headline announcing another factory shutdown, spelling 97 more layoffs in a region where the mood this week seemed as leaden as the chill autumn sky.

News of plans to close the Alcatel plant, which manufactures fiber-optic wire in nearby Claremont, delivered another belly blow to Catawba County, which during the last two years has endured a series of cutbacks in furniture, textiles and fiber optics. The string of reductions -- due to recession, corporate restructuring and foreign imports -- has cost the county more than 4,000 jobs.

Those sagging economic fortunes have made for an electorate that is particularly fretful about jobs as Republican Elizabeth Hanford Dole and Democrat Erskine Bowles square off in a ferocious and closely watched U.S. Senate race. The campaign to fill the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, who will retire after 30 years, has tightened in recent days, with Dole's lead in single digits. The jobs issue may prove decisive.

Job creation topped the list of campaign issues among registered North Carolina voters polled by Elon University in a survey released last week. Ninety percent of respondents deemed job creation "important" or "very important" in making their choice for senator.

"Jobs is No. 1," declared a Newton worker, who said his hours at a fiber-optic company were halved this year. The man, who declined to give his name for fear of upsetting his employer, said the cutbacks have forced him to supplement his $13-an-hour wage as an on-again, off-again forklift driver with unemployment checks. "If you can bring jobs, that's what everybody wants," he said. "Bring the jobs back, instead of layoffs."

That reality isn't lost on either of the Senate candidates, who have clobbered each other in television commercials and campaign speeches over who is to blame for the mess and who can best address a downturn aggravated by global trade, shifting tastes and broad economic changes that may doom lunch-bucket jobs in industries ranging from textile to tobacco.

Shutdowns and layoffs meant pink slips for 64,000 state residents last year. So along with the usual jousting over Social Security, school vouchers and prescription drug benefits for seniors, the Senate campaign has centered on jobs and trade policy to a remarkable degree.

"This state in particular is going through a pretty painful economic transition. This recession has taken a really severe toll on the state. It has hastened the collapse of the low-wage, low-skill, small-town industries," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program in Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "At the root here -- what this race is really about -- is which candidate can tap into and become the vehicle for helping the state cope with this really important transition."

Dole, 66, the former U.S. Labor secretary and onetime presidential candidate, had barely stepped off her campaign bus for a stop in Newton this week when she turned to the economic themes dominating the stretch drive.

"There are a lot of people hurting all across the state. A lot of people have lost their jobs," she told a gathering of about 40 supporters Wednesday morning in the old Catawba County courthouse downtown, 45 miles northwest of Charlotte. "There's a lot of hurt and pain."

The candidate touted her "Dole plan," which favors job creation through tax relief, more federal aid to community colleges and added protections for North Carolina's textile industry through the use of "tracers" -- high-tech markings embedded in fabrics to distinguish home-grown products from smuggled imports.

Sounding a familiar theme, Dole blamed the administration of President Clinton, whom Bowles served as White House chief of staff, for failing to adequately block illegal imports. "When I hear Erskine Bowles, my opponent, say we must vigorously enforce trade laws, all I can say is, Erskine, you had your chance," she said.

Dole, who has come under fire from Bowles for her support of expanding the president's authority to negotiate trade agreements, said the United States needs unfettered access to foreign marketplaces. She vowed never to endorse a treaty that would hurt North Carolina workers.

Dole, wearing a violet suit, worked the carpeted aisle of the courtroom in the manner of a talk-show host. She drew a chuckle from the audience, mostly seniors, when she mocked what she called "the Bowles plan," holding up a blank sheet of paper. "His plan is about attacking my plan," Dole said.

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