- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2004

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Democratic presidential candidates showcased their economic plans during a forum yesterday before thousands who have been affected by the exodus of textile jobs here.

Five of the candidates participated in one-on-one sessions with the audience discussing the top issue in South Carolina — jobs. An estimated 75,000 jobs have been lost in the state in the past three years.

“How can you stop this loss, not only here but throughout the country?” asked James Holloway, a retired textile worker from Saluda.

Mr. Holloway, 58, told the candidates how his small community of 20,000 residents lost 900 jobs when the largest manufacturing company moved its plant to Honduras.

The Palmetto State has lost more than 57,000 textile jobs, its chief economy.

“We’re going to change trade agreements and our tax codes to give companies the chance to stay here,” Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said.

Thousands packed the Columbia Township Auditorium downtown for a “Dialogue with America’s Families,” an event sponsored by the Center for Community Change. The event was moderated by popular radio personality Tom Joyner.

The center has partnered with numerous organizations to register 2 million voters in 30 states. Later, some families in attendance went door-to-door to register Columbia residents.

Mr. Edwards addressed the downfall of free-trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, passed under President Clinton. All of the candidates agreed that the policy has allowed many companies to close U.S. manufacturing plants and move their shops overseas.

The practice has grown under President Bush with new incentives for companies to move jobs to other continents to expand trade, Mr. Edwards said. And he said he would look to alter trade deals without adequate protections against the loss of American jobs.

“We should create a full employment economy with new jobs aimed at rebuilding our infrastructure — roads, bridges, highways and firehouses in our cities and nationwide,” said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio.

“When I’m president, there won’t be one Benedict Arnold company getting incentives to take our jobs overseas and sticking the American people with the bill,” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. Kucinich, Mr. Edwards, the Rev. Al Sharpton, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Wesley Clark took part in the event. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut withdrew at the last minute. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts held a similar event at South Carolina University, which involved Vietnam War veterans.

A poll released yesterday by the Zogby group showed Mr. Edwards leading the pack in South Carolina with 25 percent support but Mr. Kerry trails by just one percentage point.

The longer the field remains so large with seven candidates, the wearier the candidates seem at events. But Mr. Kerry seemed invigorated in the Russell Ballroom, twirling his suit coat off and getting fired up talking about Mr. Bush’s cuts in veterans benefits and job-training programs.

Several members of the audience at the Columbia auditorium said they had made a decision.

“My issues pertain to the war, education and the economy and Mr. Edwards hit them right on the head,” said Columbia native William Pruitt, 62. “I put him up against the other candidates and he is the one for me.”

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