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No candidates in York Co. Thursday - just working class people discussing SC GOP primary

No Republican presidential candidates came to York County on Thursday. No events, no speeches, no cheers.

These real people wouldn't have gone anyway.

Thursday in Rock Hill was just working-class people who are being asked to vote Saturday - and they do not need speeches to have opinions on who they will vote for or why.

At the Varsity Restaurant on Oakland Avenue, Bleachery textile mill veterans and people who worked for companies that serviced the mill sat around a table.

All at the table grew up dirt poor and know what work means. They came from that mill, which was the springboard for thousands of Rock Hill lives outside the mills.

Everybody who can vote planned to vote in Saturday's primary. Older Republicans, plainly, vote in primaries. They have great political power - and they use it.

They earned it.

These guys fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and then did nothing but work all their lives. They have opinions and earned the right to give that opinion out - solicited or not.

Nobody has to ask these characters twice what they think about anything.

"Newt Gingrich is the only candidate for this country," said Charlie Funderburke, retired accountant, teacher and Vietnam War veteran.

Henry Nichols, who worked in that long-gone mill 42 years, also plans to vote for Gingrich, as does Jimmy Baker, who worked "40-something years" in the mill.

"He's the best man," said Baker.

Baker offered nothing else, because tough guys need nothing else. But at the head of the table, Linwood Sims, 44 years at the Bleachery, said Romney will get his vote.

"He stands out above the rest," said Sims.

Jerry Ferguson agreed Romney is "the most qualified" because of his business experience, and Richard Neely, 20 years at the Bleachery, also said Romney is best. So did T.A. Jefferds.

"Romney is the most electable against Obama," said Jefferds. "We're supposed to be picking who can win the office."

Up to the table wandered Alan Weatherford, 42 years at the Bleachery, his gray hair pushing in front of the table.

"I worked with all these rascals - most of them - and I'm a Democrat," chuckled Weatherford. "I'm voting for Obama in November. Wish he was running Saturday. I'd vote for him against any of these people the Republicans got runnin'."

All these Republicans have little use for Democrats - but they sure respect hard work. Weatherford is a friend who worked alongside them for more than 40 years. He earned the right to his opinion.

At the next table sat Tom Dillon, retired, who described himself as "pure Republican." His wife, Lola, said she is too - Republican, all the way.

"Mitt Romney, the only candidate who can do the job of president," said Tom Dillon. "I've studied all these candidates. People our age pay attention. We read. He's the only one with the business background."

On another side Stan Wilburn said, "Romney." At the next table J.B. Reeves, a petroleum equipment salesman, said Romney is the only choice.

"Economy," said Reeves. "This other stuff doesn't matter."

Next to them, Bill Branch and his wife Ruth, plus Bernard Faulkenberry, all retired, said: "Newt" because of Gingrich's political experience.

Others say Gingrich's political experience is enough reason to stay away from the guy.

In the middle of the old Industrial mill village about a mile from the Varsity sits Bethel United Methodist Church, which each Thursday runs a soup kitchen to raise money for its homeless shelter and other services. Hundreds poured in Thursday, with opinions to match each hungry mouth.

The patrons - all donate money for food, to help somebody else in need - come from all over, but in general they are the tough, conservative, generous souls of Rock Hill's industrial past.

The news that Rick Perry quit the race Thursday forced a few people such as Robert Benfield to find someone else.

"I'm not keen on Newt," said Benfield. "Too long in Washington, an insider and we sure don't need more of those."

Robert Massey said plainly: "Romney, period."

Janie Craig said Gingrich, surging in the polls, "scares me." Her husband, Bill, said, "The only choice is Santorum or Romney - someone to beat Obama and run the country."

Jim Brandon put it bluntly why Santorum, the social conservative, is his guy: "A dedicated Christian whose platform reflects who I am."

At other tables, opinions flowed like the sweet tea, because this is a place of strong people with views to match. Sure people were talking about the primary Saturday, because it matters and they are the ones who will be voting.

But not just them. At another table was a younger crowd - Narcie Jeter, United Methodist minister for Winthrop, and some of her students. That crowd also was talking about the candidates.

"Santorum, the difference between him and Newt is night and day," said Jeter. "Santorum is more personable, more real."

The candidates are not nearly as tough as many of these people who will vote for them. Each candidate has tons of money and some never worked a hard day in their lives, unlike so many voters around here.

But these voters did not argue. They did not call names. Nobody did what candidates do - whine a lot, blaming the other guys, the media, whomever, for whatever shortfalls each has.

Real people accept responsibility and understand candidates for office, almost always, have flaws. But the dirty politics of name-calling and sneaky, nasty methods has made these older voters wary of all the candidates.

At the Varsity, Baker and Neely and Sims all complained about the relentless mailings and unsolicited phone calls that have come to them from candidates by the score.

"First thing in the morning and all day the phone is ringing," said Neely. "Stupid calls. Ron Paul's campaign calls me, for what? I'm not voting for that guy. What do I care what his campaign says about the other guys?

"The calls just make it worse."

"No phone call can sway me," said Sims. "I vote for the best man and that's it."

That's maybe what all the ads and even the candidates - and certainly the national media - can't comprehend about this area. The people of South Carolina who will choose the Republican nominee, generally, despise the tactics used by candidates to seek their votes.

This age group votes in primaries in huge numbers. They put on soup kitchens and tithe at churches and fought wars and worked in mills and factories and foundries.

They worked in blue collar jobs forever and put kids through college so the kids did not have to work in mills and factories.

Their politics is generally conservative, and their hearts generally soft.

No candidate is perfect, said Jefferds, the Romney supporter, but elections mean the people choose the best at hand.

"We were handed nothing in our lives," Jefferds said. "We earned all we got. We earned this vote Saturday. I don't need anybody to tell me what to do.

"The candidates should know that."