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Southern Discomfort May Be His Shot

In Georgia, Edwards targets angry white conservatives willing to abandon Bush.

March 01, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

WOODBURY, Ga. — Carl Fishburn is the kind of voter President Bush should be able to count on. The owner of a hardware and lumber store in this farming town of 1,200, Fishburn shakes his head in disgust at the mention of John F. Kerry, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential race. Rush Limbaugh's radio show has a soothing influence on him.

But a funny thing happened to him during the primary season. He began to like a Democratic candidate.

"I like that Edwards guy. He's my kind of folks," said Fishburn, 59, a Vietnam veteran who spent 30 years as a railroad worker. "He sounds like somebody from my hometown. He came from nothing."

As the only contest in the South among the 10 primaries and caucuses on Tuesday, the vote in Georgia carries an urgency for the presidential hopes of Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Kerry is heavily favored to win the day's two biggest prizes -- the California and New York primaries. Edwards' strategy for Super Tuesday is to do well enough to keep his campaign alive until March 9, when voters in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas go to the polls. As part of that plan, a victory in Georgia looms as a virtual must.

Edwards hopes to attract support from independents and Republicans, who are allowed to vote in Georgia's Democratic primary. Such backing propelled him to his second-place finish in Wisconsin's Feb. 17 primary.

Polls have painted a mixed picture of Edwards' prospects in Georgia -- at least one put him within range of Kerry, while others have shown him far behind.

Kerry has campaigned little in the state -- a one-day stop in Atlanta last week was his first visit since the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses. Edwards, by contrast, spent five days in Georgia after the caucuses and returned for more campaigning this weekend. But Kerry has racked up endorsements from some of Georgia's most respected Democratic leaders.

Partly for that reason, Edwards has not focused his energy on the traditional Democratic stronghold of Atlanta. Instead, he has devoted much of his time to the middle and southern parts of the state, where conservative white voters, wracked by job losses, may be willing to abandon Bush.

"They're voting with their belly," said former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who has campaigned vigorously for Edwards. "In prosperous times, folks become a little more concerned about splitting hairs on social issues." Now, he said, "they're visceral. They feel threatened. They feel angry."

It is a risky strategy for Edwards. The Atlanta region is densely populated with die-hard Democratic loyalists -- liberal whites, Latinos and particularly African Americans, who typically make up 35% to 45% of the Democratic vote, according to Bobby Kahn, chairman of the state Democratic Party.

In many ways, though, Atlanta is a boomtown sealed off from the rest of Georgia -- particularly the area that falls below the "gnat line," named after a marked increase in flying insects. The biggest sectional difference this year is economic: Atlanta has been an engine of job creation, adding nearly 68,600 jobs in the last year alone, said Rajeev Dhawan, director of Georgia State University's Economic Forecasting Center.

Buoyed by Atlanta's new jobs, Georgia's unemployment rate is 4% -- lower than the national average of 6%.

As Atlanta grows, political battles in the state's northern part revolve around social issues.

The picture is different south of the gnat line. In recent decades, the region has "moved from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing economy to a big question-mark economy," said Beth Schapiro, whose company surveys Georgia voters.

During Bush's presidency, Georgia has lost 67,400 jobs in the furniture, electronics, textile and other manufacturing industries, according to Bob Baugh, director of the Industrial Council of the AFL-CIO.

"I can't even say I'm middle class any more. I'm poor, working poor," said Shirley Grimmett, 47, who left a job in Ohio at a hospital when she moved to Columbus, Ga., last summer to care for her aging parents. Working for a social service agency -- for half the salary she earned at the hospital -- Grimmett can't afford to rent an apartment of her own.

The loss of white-collar jobs, in particular, has brought gnawing insecurity to the area. This month, Lee Snider, 39, arrived at his job as a technical writer at a credit card processing firm to be greeted with "little office whispers" and anxious clusters among the cubicles. Halfway through the work day, a friend checked the office e-mail directory for their boss' name -- and discovered it had been deleted.

By the end of the day, 237 jobs had been "eliminated," including Snider's.

Snider, who left the Army five years ago and has no college degree, has found that most of the jobs he is qualified for are in the service sector and offer no benefits.

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