There are a few troubling signs for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, just two days before the primary in South Carolina.
A new CNN poll shows Romney’s lead over former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich is shrinking. Other polls show Gingrich ahead there.
This as Romney continues to be dogged by questions about his finances. His campaign has now confirmed he has money stashed in offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands, but insists Romney is not receiving any tax breaks.
With the unemployment rate at about 10 percent in South Carolina, money and jobs are likely to take center stage at Thursday night’s debate, the final one before Saturday’s primary. Romney’s jobs message is getting mixed reviews from voters there.
A pallet of canned corn is stacked in a warehouse at the Harvest Hope Food Bank in Florence. Many volunteer food pantries come here to stock up their shelves.
“We get some of our food from food drives, but most of our food comes from partner companies like Wal-Mart, Food Lion,” said Nicole Echols, who runs the distribution center.
“These have been tough times, so the American people want a turnaround. I spent my life, by the way, learning how to turn things around and make them better. I understand how that works.”
Echols said the need in this northeastern part of the state is huge and growing.
“Right now our unemployment rate is 14 percent — higher than the state and national average. We had a major industry shut down, and every time we see a business close we see our lines get longer,” she said.
One town nearby recently lost a Russell Stover candy-making plant, leaving the community with a 24 percent unemployment rate. Unlike New Hampshire, where employment might be found with a longer commute, the jobs just aren’t here. And, in this primary, the candidates have really seized on that issue. Romney is spending most of his time focusing on it. His pitch across the state: he’s a conservative businessman with a track record of job creation.
“These have been tough times, so the American people want a turnaround,” Romney said. “I spent my life, by the way, learning how to turn things around and make them better. I understand how that works.”
On the campaign trail Romney doesn’t go into specific details about his jobs plan, except to say that government should get out of the way of the private sector. Still, Romney’s experience resonates with some voters, such as Ashley Sherman, a retired businessperson.
“Romney has shown his ability to have knowledge of the economy, he’s been a job creator,” Ashley said.
The mayor of Greenville, Knox White, agreed.
“Well I think this election is about jobs and the economy, and if the election is about that I think Mitt Romney makes more sense than anyone else,” White said.
But not all Republicans here are buying that line.
“I’ll tell you this, I don’t think he’s the only one with a jobs plan. I think the other ones have jobs plans that can help this state,” said Stephanie McLaughlin Rawlingson, who is the president of the women’s Republican group in Florence.
Rawlingson is sitting in a booth at the Drive-In Diner downtown, a popular stop for presidential candidates. In fact, Texas Gov. Rick Perry had a burger with her here earlier this week. Also at the table is Barbara Shirley, who is recently unemployed and skeptical about Romney.
“I believe he created jobs at Bain, but it’s a different story in government. I’m not impressed with what he did in Massachusetts, he leaned to be more like a Democrat to me,” Shirley said.
Romney’s role at Bain Capital is on the minds of a lot of people around this table, including Susan Minck, who holds down two jobs and volunteers for the Republican Party.
“He can say he’s generated jobs, but at the same time he’s not telling you how many jobs he cost either, that’s a topic he doesn’t want to talk about because that’s not electable information,” Minck said.
In South Carolina, Bain bought two factories and eventually closed them. The firm made millions of dollars in profits from the deal, but more than 800 people lost their jobs. One of the factories was in Gaffney, where Ed Eliot is head of the Chamber of Commerce. He said the attacks on Romney over his venture capital years at Bain aren’t resonating with voters in his community.
“Anytime you lose a job it is tough for a community, but as far as the residents of Gaffney, South Carolina, most everybody really doesn’t remember a whole lot about it and I don’t think it will affect how people feel about Mitt Romney,” Eliot said.
How people feel about Mitt Romney still seems to be in flux. Many voters haven’t made up their minds and in the final two days before the primary here in South Carolina, Romney is working hard to close the deal.