When Terra Nitrogen shuts its fertilizer plant this month here on the banks of the Mississippi River, it will be the third time in a dozen years that Charlotte McFarland has lost a job.
At 59, she said, she is unlikely to circulate her resume again. Maybe she will take advantage of federal dollars for displaced workers and go back to school. Perhaps she will open a pet grooming business in the town's quaint but desolate downtown. Then again, she might "just sit back," given that she has worked since she was a child, chopping cotton in the fields along the Delta.
McFarland is pretty sure about one thing: She will not be voting for President Bush. Although she does not blame him in particular for the high gasoline prices and cutthroat foreign competition that forced her employer to close the plant after 39 years, she also does not feel that Bush is "looking out for the people in this country -- the people who don't make enough money to feed their children, who don't have enough money for health care."
If that sounds like good news for Democrat Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), listen more closely: "I don't know about Mr. Kerry," McFarland, who describes herself as independent, said in an interview. "I just don't know where he stands on the issues."
Kerry has tried to make the economy a major issue, arguing that the nation is in the throes of the worst job recovery period since the Great Depression. It is a message that would seem to resonate with voters in Mississippi County, which has lost nearly 5,000 jobs over six years.
But Democrats who dominate the voting rolls in this county of 50,000 on the eastern edge of Arkansas tend to lean to the right, especially on social issues. They are frustrated with the unsteady pace of the economy, but they say they are even more frustrated with their choices on the November presidential ballot.
Bush won Arkansas with 51 percent, snaring far more votes than might have been expected in hard-luck areas such as Mississippi County, where he got 41 percent to Al Gore's 56 percent. Democratic Party leaders are concerned that many of their voters could defect to Bush.
"I wish we had a candidate who was more moderate," George Hale, a Democrat on the county's elections commission, lamented over lunch at the Sharecroppers Restaurant in downtown Blytheville. "We've got the passion against Bush; we just don't have the passion for Kerry."
"Come in and eat or we both will starve," beckons the sign over the front door of the Sharecroppers Restaurant, a block off Main Street. The restaurant is the liveliest establishment in a downtown that has been spruced up -- pastel blossoms burst out of sidewalk planters -- but whose storefronts and sidewalks are empty.
During the first week of June, when the Bush administration trumpeted new Labor Department figures showing 1 million jobs had been created nationwide since August, the guys at Fondren's Hardware chuckled and quipped, "Where are they?"
They are not in Mississippi County, where unemployment stood at 11.5 percent in April. Mississippi County sprawls over 900 square miles, bordering Missouri on the north and Tennessee on the east, a straight shot up Interstate 55 from Memphis. It was settled in the 1800s by planters and in its prime was one of the largest cotton-producing areas in the world. In the 1950s, textile factories moved into the area, but fizzled in the late 1970s. Since then the jobs, mostly light manufacturing, have come and gone -- a few hundred out, a few hundred in -- and unemployment has stayed in double digits.
Statewide, Arkansas is showing small signs of a turnaround. Employers added 2,800 jobs in May, and 10,100 since the employment trough of June 2003. But state payrolls remain 9,400 jobs behind where they were when Bush was inaugurated, and manufacturing has yet to recover. Since bottoming out in January, Arkansas has gained back 700 of the 32,300 manufacturing jobs it lost since January 2001.
A major blow here came in 1992, when the Eaker Air Force Base closed, costing the county more than 4,000 jobs and tens of millions in revenue. But that same year, Nucor Steel opened a mill on the Mississippi River. Seven years later, it teamed with a Japanese company to open a second facility, Nucor-Yamato Steel Co. Together the steel mills have created about 1,300 jobs. More recently, city leaders and residents have been cheering the arrival of Denso Corp., a Japanese auto-parts manufacturer, which will provide 500 jobs in a new plant in Osceola, about 16 miles south of Blytheville.
Politically, Mississippi County is just as fickle. Residents speak well of their Republican governor, Mike Huckabee, and their representative, Marion Berry, a "Blue Dog" Democrat. The voters here still pine for native son Bill Clinton and were disappointed that another homeboy, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, was knocked out of this year's Democratic primary.
Tommie Robinson, 60, is a retired Air Force serviceman who lives in Westminster Village, a retirement community that was created on a portion of the shuttered Eaker Air Force Base. Robinson describes himself as "more or less a Democrat," explaining that he is guided more by where a candidate stands on the issues. "In some things, the Republicans do a little better," he said, citing the party's opposition in general to abortion and same-sex marriage.
He says he is not struggling financially, but that high gasoline prices have forced him to scale back car trips to visit relatives in Michigan and Mississippi. Although he is fortunate that his military benefits cover his medication, Robinson said many friends complain about having to "pay all their money for medicine."
Still, Robinson, who said he is undecided on the presidential race, does not think the economy is affected by which party controls the White House or Congress. "It's more about greed," he said with a shrug. "The reason big companies go overseas is to make more money."
Todd Shields, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, said he has been trying to figure out why voters such as Robinson separate their politics from their pocketbooks. "Most of the time when it comes to voting behavior in the South, it's not uncommon to see people placing social questions above economic interests," Shields said. "They are willing to sacrifice their economic well-being for someone who holds the same position on maybe abortion or the death penalty or the perception that they will be vigilant in defending America or -- and this is a big one -- guns. In 2000, I think that's the big thing that hurt Gore."
Similarly, Shields said, southern voters believe in a strong military, and Bush's fate in the region will hinge on the course of the war in the coming months.
The war in Iraq was cited as often as the economy by Blytheville residents in discussing whether Bush deserves a second term.
Republican Tom Witorek, who owns the New York Store clothing shop on Main Street, places the war on terrorism over the economy. And he is tired of reminiscing about the heady days of economic growth during Clinton's presidency. "Bill Clinton did not come here and open up five stores," he said. "People don't think it's the president's job to make sure we get businesses here in Blytheville, Arkansas. . . . It's the federal government's job to protect the country."
Witorek, who serves on the county commission, acknowledged that the Republican Party is "very weak here." But he thinks Bush could do well because of voters' conservative bent and their distaste for Kerry. "I've heard people say they're for George Bush and against George Bush, but I've not heard a one person in this town tell me they're for John Kerry."
Greg Delancey wishes there was a box for "none of the above." Delancey, who is running as an independent for county coroner, said he supported the Iraq war initially but thinks Bush has botched it. "Kerry just scares me," he said. "He's the abortion guy. I'm 100 percent against abortion."
McFarland said she does not dislike Kerry; she just does not know much about him. Too bad Clark did not make it, she said. "He truly cares about the country. He would have done a good job."
Right now, though, she is more focused on what to do next. She worked for Terra Nitrogen for nine years as a human resources supervisor. The company has a generous retirement savings plan so she will be able to live without a regular paycheck. Her major concern is securing health care insurance.
McFarland's only child died in 1987, and her husband passed away five years ago. So now it is just she and her Yorkie, Cosmo. Recently she took him to "the beauty parlor," and the owner of the pet grooming shop said business was so good that she was turning customers away. McFarland thinks that might be a fun venture.
A couple of weeks ago, on the final day of employment for most of the 75 workers at the plant, McFarland sat in her office and tried to make sense of how the global economy affects the small town where she has lived for 30 years.
"I know what NAFTA is and if we didn't have it, we wouldn't have as many foreign imports," she said. "But the gas prices would still hurt their business. And if they don't do something about gas prices, it's going to affect everybody, not just our plant."
"I don't know whose fault it is," she said. "It used to be that you were promised a job for life. It's just not that way anymore."
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman in Washington contributed to this report.