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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

We begin this hour in one of the first states to weigh in next month with its presidential primary, South Carolina. The economy will be the top issue for many voters, so we're taking the economic temperature of several early voting states. Yesterday, we heard from Iowa, where unemployment is low compared to the rest of the country.

But Julie Rose, of member station WFAE, reports a different story in South Carolina, where the unemployment rate is now on the verge of 10 percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

JULIE ROSE, BYLINE: Ring up the South Carolina governor's office, and you'll get this cheery message:

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's a great day in South Carolina. Governor Nikki Haley's office, how may I help you?

ROSE: Governor Haley took some heat recently for mandating state agencies use that greeting. A 10 percent unemployment rate is hardly a great day, her critics say. But Haley just points to the more than 15,000 new jobs she's announced in South Carolina since January.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS ANNOUNCEMENTS)

GOV. NIKKI HALEY: Three-hundred and thirteen million dollars...over $500 million...that's what we're celebrating...1,700 jobs...1,600 jobs...almost $20 million in investment in South Carolina. That's worth celebrating today.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ROSE: For some perspective on those 15,000 new jobs, consider that South Carolina's economy has lost 78,000 jobs since its employment peak in 2007. The vast majority were construction jobs, and that was a big blow to fast-growing counties that are the engine of South Carolina's economy. York County, for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER, BIRDS)

ROSE: Before the recession, people flocked here to build lovely homes in a rural setting, with a quick commute to the once-booming Charlotte region of neighboring North Carolina. Now, York's unemployment rate is 11.1 percent, the highest of the state's large counties.

JOHN HARDING: This is just new construction here.

ROSE: John Harding is a custom-home builder in York County. But the only home he's building at the moment is his own.

HARDING: Took advantage of the interest rates and nobody else is building right now, so we figured we would.

ROSE: In 2008, Harding had eight employees - and work backed up six to eight weeks. Now, it's just him and his wife, with business down by half. Harding blames Congress and President Obama.

HARDING: They're killing the economy; they're absolutely killing it.

ROSE: He's looking for a strong leader to take charge.

HARDING: And I'm not sure that even the Republican Party right now has that person.

ROSE: He wonders about former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who has the endorsement of Governor Haley; or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - or maybe Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

HARDING: You know, Mitt's got a lot of problems. Newt Gingrich's got a lot of problems. I'll tell you, Michele, you know - a lot of people need to be looking at her.

ROSE: Indecision is a hallmark of South Carolina Republican sentiment in the coming primary. The economy may be the top issue for voters, but they're not at all sure who can fix it. And South Carolina's economic picture is far from monochrome. Optimism is popping up among job searchers in metro areas that are starting to rebound. Cheryl Jenerette lost her York County government job two years ago, but says...

CHERYL JENERETTE: I think we're getting there, because there's some people that started out with their unemployment with me, that have found jobs within the last six months. So I think that's better.

ROSE: Neighboring Chester County is a different story. Its unemployment rate is 14.1 percent. In 2010, it was above 20 percent. This is one of many rural South Carolina areas where textile mills once employed entire towns. Now, the mills are closed, and the state's shift toward modern manufacturing has left Chester behind. Low education levels are a key problem, so Chester residents raised millions of dollars to open a technical college campus in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

WALTER TURNER: York Tech Chester, this is Walter.

ROSE: The college has given Walter Turner a reason to stay in town, while so many of his peers flee in search of work. He's the 20-year-old son of a former millworker, hoping to become a graphic designer. 2012 will be his first time voting. And yes, the economy is on his mind.

TURNER: But, I mean, who's to blame for unemployment rates? I mean, I don't really know.

ROSE: Turner's waiting for guidance from his dad on who should replace President Obama.

TURNER: I guess - I guess - I hope - I hope a Republican will come up who can do better.

ROSE: Outside the Chester County unemployment office, Juanita Johnson's hopes are focused on finding work to replace the job she just lost at a snack-food plant an hour away.

JUANITA JOHNSON: It's just - there's nothing. It's just - poor morale right now because you've gotten just enough to get by.

ROSE: Are things getting better in this area, do you think?

JOHNSON: No. No.

ROSE: And all those new jobs the governor's been announcing? Only 50 came to Chester County.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose.

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