By Jeffrey Collins
LEXINGTON, S.C. (AP) -- At first glance, South Carolina seems like a place where attacks on Mitt Romney's experience at the helm of a venture capital firm that cut jobs would resonate in the GOP primary.
The state's unemployment rate hasn't been below 9 percent in three years and a third of its manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the last decade.
But from South Carolina's urban centers to its old mill villages, many workers still view their employers paternalistically, even when their bosses' decisions hurt them. And that may blunt the criticism that Romney is a greedy fat cat who squashes employees while lining his own pockets.
In South Carolina, people have little sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Low wages and lack of unions are the norm, so much so that economic developers refused to even recruit companies to the state in the 1960s and 1970s if they allowed unions. Less than 5 percent of the state's workers belong to a labor union, one of the lowest rates in the nation, and income per person is just over $33,000, about $7,000 below the national average.
"Once you get hired, the employer has done his part," Kenneth Dock, 59, said outside the unemployment office in Lexington County, a heavily Republican area on the outskirts of Columbia. He was filing for unemployment a few weeks after losing his job in the produce department at a nearby Walmart.
Dock plans to vote in the Jan. 21 GOP primary in South Carolina, but he hasn't decided which candidate to support. Romney is still a possibility.
"People get laid off. People lose their jobs," he said. "It's just a part of business."
Romney, fresh off back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, hopes that mindset will have South Carolina Republicans dismissing attacks on his tenure at Bain Capital as he campaigns ahead of the state's primary.
Over the past few days, Romney has faced intense criticism by rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry as they worked to undercut the central rationale of his candidacy - that his experience in private business makes him the strongest Republican to challenge President Barack Obama on the economy.
Perry likened the private equity firm to "vultures" that ruin workers' lives. And Gingrich has demanded answers about how many jobs were lost under Romney.
The criticism is certain to make its way into hard-hitting TV advertisements in the coming days, with outside groups aligned with the candidates - called super PACs - doing most of the dirty work. One supporting Gingrich plans to spend $3.4 million to run ads on this subject as well as air part of a documentary about Bain called "When Mitt Romney Came to Town." In the film, former employees of four companies bought by Romney's firm talk about how they lost their homes, their livelihoods and their dreams as jobs were cut.
Romney's opponents also have the story of a South Carolina company to use against him.
A photo frame factory in Gaffney in what used to be the manufacturing center of the state was owned by a company Bain controlled. It closed in 1992 just four years after it opened. A hundred workers lost their jobs, while the move helped the Bain subsidiary go from a $12.4 million loss to a $3 million after-tax profit the year after the closing.
Rivals also are seizing on a couple of missteps Romney made in the closing days of the New Hampshire campaign.
At one point, Romney said, "There were a couple of times when I was worried I was going to get pink-slipped." Neither he nor his aides provided specifics.
And at another, he said, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." The former Massachusetts governor later emphasized he was talking about health insurance and how people should have choices with their health care.
For all the criticism, there's been a collective shrug in South Carolina so far, perhaps because of the way many workers view employers in the state.
It's only about a generation removed from a time when companies essentially created villages by building the houses, schools, ball fields, dance halls and churches their employees used. Wages were low and these companies provided almost everything, creating a society where even surviving outside of an employer's benevolence may have seemed impossible.
Malissa Burnette has seen such bonds between employers and workers in her 35 years as a labor attorney who has represented workers suing their employers in the state.
"When employees come to me, I see a lot of shock and disillusionment and disappointment in their employers because they did have the belief that employers were there to treat them well, look after them, to have their best interest at heart," Burnette says.
Further evidence of how the people in South Carolina view businesses can be found on the Facebook page of Gov. Nikki Haley, who endorsed Romney last month. She spent her first year in office fighting unions and encouraging businesses find to come to the state.
"South Carolina continues to be one of the lowest union participation states in the country," Haley wrote on Facebook in November. "The reason is that our companies understand that they have to take care of those that take care of them. Our employees appreciate the direct honest relationship that they have with their employers. It will continue to be a winning combination."
To be sure, there are voters in South Carolina who are angry with the way businesses operate these days. Just ask Wayne Ott, 64, who was applying for unemployment for the first time in his life after being laid off after 40 years as a truck driver.
"I believe in capitalism. I just don't think we've been doing it right," Ott said. He is deciding between Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum because he thinks Romney is part of a greater problem of people who get rich without earning it.
Others are taking a more pragmatic approach.
Angela Frost, 41, lost her job as an insurance underwriter in September. She blames Obama for the stagnant economy and has decided to support Romney because she thinks he has the best chance of winning back the White House.
"Cutting jobs and closing businesses are a part of the system," Frost said. "The system has failed a lot of people. You can't blame one person for the system."
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