George W. Bush promised there would be better times for people here. That's what Burnett Martin remembers. But as he loads and unloads an ever-shrinking haul of tobacco leaves at Motley's Warehouse, what the 62-year-old floor manager sees is a way of life that is withering away. The cavernous building where farmers drop off their yield for sale to dealers is filled with the sickly-sweet smell of tobacco. Once the crop filled more than a dozen warehouses, but now it barely fills this one.
Textile mills have moved abroad. They had provided jobs to a third of the people in this city of about 48,000 just north of the border with North Carolina. Today, their former employees struggle to find work.
And so Martin says it's time for a change. Despite his support for President Bush's invasion of Iraq, Martin plans to vote for the Democrat, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, on Nov. 2. He's exactly the kind of voter Kerry needs to have a chance of winning Virginia's 13 electoral votes.
"It used to be, you got up every morning and you knew you were going to work," said Martin, who has lived just outside Danville all his life. "But now, it's all changed. Now, you get up and you don't know whether you'll be laid off today. I don't know how much [Kerry] can do. I don't know how much any of them can do. But I think it's time we make a change and find out anyhow."
A vote for Kerry is by no means a given here. In 2000, Bush won 56.6 percent of Virginia's rural vote, according to statistics compiled by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Al Gore won 40.3 percent of the rural vote. Four years earlier, former senator Robert J. Dole beat President Bill Clinton among rural voters.
Bush is a "first-class president," said farmer Roy Pritchett, 64, as he dropped off 6,018 pounds of tobacco from his 32-acre farm. Pritchett will get about $1.65 a pound for the leaves, many of which are destined for cigarette companies in Japan and elsewhere abroad.
"The other guy, all he does is promise," Pritchett said of Kerry. "You talk about flip-flops. I'm all Bush, I'll just tell you."
But Kerry, who supports a federal buyout of tobacco growers that farmers are pushing for in Congress, has many fans in this area.
Andrew Shepherd, a tobacco farmer who represents Danville on a national tobacco policy board, said he's decided to turn away from the Republican roots in his family and vote for Kerry.
"I was born and raised a Republican," he said. "I'm probably the only one in my family who would call himself a Democrat, and I've got 52 first cousins."
Shepherd said Bush initially expressed doubts about the proposed tobacco buyout but later said he supported it. He and other farmers said that has generated doubt in a community that strongly supported his campaign four years ago.
"Bush promised us a lot when he was elected four years ago," said Darrell Jackson, 42, who runs a tobacco farm in nearby Henry County. "So far, I don't see anything but my quotas going down and my expenses going up."
Jackson said he is "leaning toward" voting for Kerry, in part because of Kerry's choice of Sen. John Edwards of neighboring North Carolina for vice president.
"Edwards is from a textile family. So I'm thinking maybe he will remember where he came from," Jackson said. "I voted for Bush. Campaigned for him. That's the only reason I'd vote for the Democrats this time -- to get Edwards in there."
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.
"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.
That message resonates well at Danville Community College, where a group of middle-aged former textile workers talked last week about how they lost one job after another and how that might determine whom they vote for in November.
"I'm very angry that our politicians have let NAFTA go so far with moving jobs overseas," said Regina Anderson, a single mother of two teenagers who was laid off from a textile plant for the second time in February. "It was Friday the 13th. We were called on the telephone and told not to return."
Anderson said she blames politicians in the 1980s and early 1990s, who pushed for the North American Free Trade Agreement. But she said she's voting for Kerry because she hopes he'll do more to fix the problem.
"I don't blame George Jr. I don't," she said. "But if they don't do something to turn this around, what do my teenagers have to look forward to?"
Cheryl Hill, 46, worked in a textile plant for 25 years before her job was exported in 2000. Using federal funds provided by NAFTA legislation, Hill went back to school at Danville Community College and now works in the college's financial aid office.
She said she plans to vote for Kerry, in part because she likes John Edwards.
"I know he came up the hard way," she said. "They will be more in tune with what we need here. I try to look at the issue. I look at Bush's record, all the jobs in textiles and tobacco are going overseas. I think it's time for a change."
Annette Burke, 44, agreed. She lost her job to a new factory in Mexico in 1998. After two years at the community college, she now designs Web sites. She is skeptical of Kerry's claim that he can help stem the tide of jobs going overseas.
"Bush promised the same thing and it didn't happen," she said. "So why not give someone else a chance?"
Staff writer David Nakamura, with Edwards in Roanoke, contributed to this report.