ORANGEBURG, S.C. — Greg Johnson, a 53-year-old librarian, looks at the oscillating financial markets and wonders what it all means to his eventual retirement. Jan Varn Avant, a college instructor, sees health-care costs soaring. Chelsea Fogle, a college student who's studying to be an accountant, worries about her job prospects next year.
Such concerns are increasingly on the minds and lips of South Carolinians these days, and voters are scrutinizing the candidates' economic proposals as Saturday's Democratic presidential primary approaches.
Their message is clear: "The economy is a big deal," said Amara Ransom, a finance student at Claflin University in Orangeburg, and neither the stimulus plan emerging from Washington nor anyone's long-range multi-point plan is going to sway their votes easily.
The candidates are trying hard to respond. After two days campaigning elsewhere, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton returned to South Carolina on Thursday to deliver a speech on the economy at Furman University and began running ads touting her experience as a decision-maker.
The Clinton campaign clearly thinks that worries about the economy play to her strengths, as it greets voters at rallies with Dolly Parton's anthem to working-class angst, "9 to 5." Aides think that in tough times, voters will be more attracted to the "experience" that Clinton pitches than to rival Barack Obama's themes of hope and change.
Still, a new McClatchy-MSNBC poll Thursday showed Clinton running well behind Illinois Sen. Obama, with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards third.
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who was never a factor in South Carolina, or anywhere else, said he'd quit the race Friday.
In South Carolina, Clinton touted her address as a major speech, but she broke no new ground, reiterating the themes and policies she's been discussing for months.
"Many people are simply overwhelmed by the economic conditions they confront every day," she said. "This is a time of uncertainty and growing anxiety."
Clinton proposes an economic stimulus plan that could cost up to $110 billion and includes help for housing and energy needs. Obama is pushing his own $75 billion plan, which includes tax cuts for most consumers as well as $250 "bonuses" to Social Security recipients.
He wasn't pleased Thursday that the package negotiated between President Bush and congressional leaders didn't include an extension of unemployment benefits.
"That's profoundly troublesome, because if you look at long-term unemployment rates right now, they are twice what they were during the last recession," he said.
Edwards has a somewhat smaller plan, and he wasn't enthusiastic about the stimulus proposal, calling it "another example of Washington deserting working people and the middle class. They gave $70 billion of tax breaks that do nothing for those who've lost their jobs."
The plan, Edwards said, showed the "disconnect between what's happening in Washington and what I see happening here in South Carolina and across the country."
For the 13 percent of likely South Carolina Democratic voters who remain undecided, according to the McClatchy-MSNBC survey, it may come down to a gut feeling about who'd best manage the economy.
"My heart is with Barack. He's extraordinarily smart," said Janet Sawyer, a Walterboro violin teacher. "But Hillary has experience. She also has baggage that's significant."
Marie Beavers, an Orangeburg administrative assistant, is going with Obama. "All three have good plans," she said, "but I just like Obama."
There are skeptics, too, people who understand that there's no easy answer to the country's financial woes.
Nancy Spitler of Clemson is undecided. She recognizes that "the economy's obviously huge right now," but she takes the back and forth among Clinton, Obama and Edwards on competing economic plans "with a big grain of salt."
"I feel like right now everybody's making campaign promises that they won't have as much control over" if elected, said Spitler, a college administrator.
Johnson, the librarian, noted that he's 53 and is watching his retirement funds more closely than ever. "I'm not really sure Hillary Clinton has the answers," he said, "but at least she has the connections and will bring in good people."
Varn Avant, the college instructor, remains undecided; the health-care issue is complex and she wants to keep deliberating. Fogle, the accounting student, is torn between Clinton and Obama.
"Things are getting worse in the job market," she said. "I just have to think about who may do better. I just can't say right now."
(William Douglas and The (Raleigh) News & Observer's Rob Christensen contributed to this article from South Carolina.)