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Rural Va. Economy A Chance For Kerry

On Saturday, Edwards rallied a partisan crowd at a magnet school in Roanoke, a city northwest of Danville in another economically struggling part of the state. It marked the fifth visit by either Kerry or Edwards to Virginia since Memorial Day.

Edwards told the audience he could empathize with their situation because he came from a rural part of North Carolina that has had similar layoffs and economic hardships. He said a Kerry-Edwards administration would help retrain displaced workers.

Burnett Martin, 62, at work at Motley's tobacco warehouse in Danville, Va., says he plans to vote Democratic in November. He hopes change in the White House could help Southwest Virginia's struggling economy. (Jay Paul -- For The Washington Post)

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"A good place to start is to not give tax breaks to American companies who take your jobs overseas," Edwards said. "How about giving tax breaks to companies that keep jobs here in America?" Kerry strategists say they believe the Democrats can overcome 9 straight presidential contests gone to Republicans in the state because Kerry will have broad appeal in the Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia and among veterans. They also hope the ticket's focus on economically hurting areas in Southside and Southwestern Virginia will pay dividends in November.

"Families are hurting, and help is on the way," said Susan Swecker, the state director for Kerry.

Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for the Bush campaign, said he has no reason to believe Bush is losing traditional Republican support in southern Virginia or other parts of the South. He said polls suggest Bush continues to enjoy strong support across the less populated parts of the South.

"It used to be, years back, that the rural areas of Virginia were solidly Democratic. Now, the rural areas have become solidly Republican," Dowd said. "If we were having a problem with southern rural voters, it would evidence itself in states that were closer in 2000."

Evidence of Bush's support could be found at the Schoolfield Lunch counter here. Opened in 1914, the hole-in-the-wall restaurant is across the street from the Dan River Inc. factory, where 3,000 employees still make sheets, comforters, pillows and shams.

One day last week, a half-dozen locals expressed their passionate support for the Republican president -- and their distrust of Kerry.

"My views are more in line with conservative views than they are with liberal ones," said Robert Stowe, 22, who works at the Danville Museum and plans to vote for Bush. About Kerry, he said: "He'll say whatever he needs to say to get into office."

John Thomas, who said he is a semi-retired telephone worker, said he considers Kerry a Massachusetts liberal who does not appeal to the rural voters in the Danville area.

"A lot of the people I know who usually vote Democratic, they just don't trust Kerry," he said.

The Kerry campaign is trying to turn that sentiment around, in part by focusing on the plight of communities like Danville.

Here, and in towns across southern Virginia, there are few signs of the economic recovery apparent in other parts of the country. In Danville, unemployment is 11 percent. The Dan River textile company is struggling to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. And other textile companies have simply vanished from the landscape.

Many here blame free trade. Companies simply can't pay U.S. wages to employees to work a loom when they can pay pennies to someone overseas. Kerry has echoed that concern by calling for tax incentives to persuade companies to keep the jobs in the United States.

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