CHARLESTON, S.C. — Tony Pope, a bank executive in Chester County, S.C., offers a bleak picture of the economic hardships plaguing his community. Many of Chester's residents are still struggling to absorb the loss of textile jobs that will never come back.
Unemployment in his county, he says, hovers around 17 percent and has reached 22 percent.
Another somber testimonial comes from Debbie Small, 53, whose husband operates a landscape business in the coastal community of Georgetown.
"When the economy goes down, guess what goes first?" she says.
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With a double-digit unemployment rate that exceeds the national average, South Carolina appears to be fertile ground for Texas Gov. Rick Perry's focus on the economy and his promise to "get America working again."
Since launching his presidential campaign in Charleston this month, Perry has mustered some prestigious endorsements and a hefty dose of early momentum in South Carolina, which relishes its king-making reputation as the site of next year's first Southern primary.
Many analysts also consider South Carolina a must-win state for Perry as he seeks a string of victories throughout the South to offset his rivals' strengths elsewhere.
"Naturally, Perry is the best fit for the South, but he's still getting his sea legs," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research. "He bashed the door down when he came in, but the question is if he's going to be able to establish longevity in the campaign."
One of Perry's campaign themes -- his promise to duplicate Texas' robust record of job creation on the national level -- seems to resonate with many South Carolinians. The state has an unemployment rate of 10.9 percent, higher than the national average of 9.1 percent. The jobless rate is even higher in struggling rural counties.
The loss of public-sector jobs and continuing fallout from the housing crisis have contributed to the economic problems, economists say. Communities like Chester County, in the northern part of the state, never overcame the loss of textile industries.
"There is not a mood of doom and gloom, but there are certainly pockets of it," said John McDermott, chairman of the economics department at the University of South Carolina. The state's residents, he said, "are looking for some kind of changes at the national level that can spur employment and get people working again."
South Carolina's primary follows the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary in the opening round of presidential contests. Over the past three decades, every winner of South Carolina's Republican primary went on to win the nomination, a record the state GOP leadership is eager to preserve in 2012.
In 2000, George W. Bush, Perry's predecessor as governor, used a victory in South Carolina to rebound from a loss to Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire and went on to the nomination and the White House. Perry signaled the state's importance to his aspirations by announcing his candidacy in Charleston on Aug. 13 and returning to the state the next week after swings through Iowa and New Hampshire.
"I think Perry is certainly off to a good start," said Jim Guth, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville. "It's going to depend on the perception of what people have three or four months from now, but there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm for the moment."
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