The cotton and okra fields now sprout soybeans and subdivisions, but some people still call this hardscrabble stretch Klan Alley.
Though South Carolina is expected to give President Bush a big shove toward reelection in its primary next Saturday, Gaston voters probably will not. This is David Duke country--and fertile ground as well for Bush’s other rival in the Republican presidential campaign, conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan.
“I tell you who I ain’t gonna vote for is Bush,” said Robert McDonald, 51, who works nights pumping gas at Gaston’s only filling station. McDonald also works weekdays as a mechanic and weekends grooming the local dirt racetrack. He’s backing “that boy over there in Louisiana,” a reference to Duke. “At least he tells you the truth,” McDonald said.
To McDonald, the President and South Carolina Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr., who is chairman of Bush’s Southern campaign, are rich, arrogant and indifferent to a struggling middle class. But in his eyes, Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi and founder of the National Assn. for the Advancement of White People, is a true man of the people.
“He come out of the bayou, he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. . . .” McDonald said. “I know he’ll lose, but I still want to vote for him. It’s like a losing poker hand, but I’ll play that too.”
Duke insists he is no longer a racist, but his positions are still controversial. He opposes affirmative action and has blasted Bush for signing the 1991 Civil Rights Act. He would require welfare recipients to use birth control. He opposes free trade, wants to bring home all U.S. troops from abroad and wants to crack down on crime.
Those sentiments appeal to some folks around here. Outside the Double B food store in Gaston, William Robinson, 52, who manages a boat-parts factory, was at work on his second job restocking newspaper racks. “David Duke is in touch with reality,” he said. “So he was a member of the KKK. I don’t think that’s any big thing. What’s the difference between the NAACP and the KKK, except one’s white and one’s black?”
Robinson said he supports Duke but “voting for him, I’m throwing my vote away.” Instead, he plans to vote for Buchanan, who “has a lot of the same thoughts and ideas as Duke has"--and a much better chance of winning.
A number of more mainstream voters also said they like Duke’s message, though they feel the messenger is not electable. Many are leaning toward Buchanan; others are torn between Buchanan and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
South Carolina voters do not register by party and may chose either a Republican or Democratic primary ballot.
“If somebody other than David Duke gave you the same statement, you’d like him,” said L. C. Wingard, 63, of nearby Pelion, S.C., who is one of those deciding between Buchanan and Clinton. “Nothing against George Bush except we need to send him a message, and how else do you send it?”
Most areas of South Carolina are booming. The state has had record new investment, and though unemployment has swelled to 6.4%, it remains well below the 7.1% national average.
But rural pockets are hurting.
Inside the Texaco station in Gaston, a careworn 40-ish woman came in to pay off her $49 gasoline bill. Cashier Cheryl James, 31, rummaged through a red toolbox stuffed with unpaid sales slips to find the tab. In this town of 1,200 people--all but three of them white--dozens of folks are buying gasoline on credit, and many are way behind on their bills.
Five of the Gaston gas station’s customers were laid off last week, McDonald said. He makes regular trips up the road to jump-start the truck of a house painter who makes $4 an hour and cannot afford a new car battery.
James thinks Bush coddles the rich. She says she is a liberal and will vote for Clinton. But she fought to keep her son from being bused to the neighboring town of Swansea, S.C., which has a large black population and was the site of a klan march six months ago. With her sister-in-law facing foreclosure on her home March 1 and no state help in sight, James has no sympathy for those who do not work.
“I don’t want to be out there helping some 16-year-old black girl with four kids getting free food, free rent, free electric bill, free money for her kids,” James said. “If you’re white, you can’t get that.”
Duke’s campaign has been hobbled by lack of funds, and he has made only one swing through this state. The Republican Party has barred him from the ballot in Georgia and Florida, and he has urged his supporters there to vote for Buchanan. But Duke is on the ballot in 11 states, including Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas. South Carolina will be the first test of Duke’s support outside his home state.
William G. Carter, a Saluda, S.C., chiropractor who is running Duke’s South Carolina campaign, says Duke’s support is deeper than it seems.
But Duke’s chief problem could be Buchanan. “Pat Buchanan is a me-too David Duke,” Carter said. " . . . Buchanan’s platform reads like he took Duke’s platform, copied it and put his name on it. They’ve taken everything from David Duke they think will sell.”
Nonsense, says Buchanan aide Bruce Hawkins. “When Pat Buchanan was laying out the platform he’s speaking on right now, David Duke was still wearing a Nazi armband.”