WASHINGTON — Textile executives are stepping up efforts to influence voting in North Carolina, where the presidential contest and a pivotal U.S. Senate race are considered too close to call.

The National Council of Textile Organizations and the American Manufacturers Trade Action Coalition, each representing a group of textile firms and interests, unveiled 48 billboards statewide on Monday, urging the public to support candidates who back trade policies they say will benefit the flagging industry and boost U.S. manufacturing.

The campaign, featuring billboards that read: “Stop Sending Jobs Overseas. Fix Trade Policy Now! Register…Vote,” is part of an industry effort focused on North Carolina, the biggest textile manufacturing state, and the other large producers, South Carolina and Georgia. The goal is to focus voters on trade issues and their impact on jobs. The challenge is formidable because under federal election rules, companies or industry associations can’t endorse candidates. Firms are allowed to conduct voter registration and education drives.

“We need to raise awareness on the manufacturing issue, since the Iraq war, terrorism and national security are taking center stage,” said Steve Dobbins, president of Carolina Mills, a fabric and yarn maker in Maiden, N.C.

Textile executives are generally at odds with President Bush’s trade policies, which they say favor international commerce over domestic concerns. Critics say Bush has been too aggressive in lowering tariffs through free-trade pacts and contend that he has not reined-in China’s surging imports.

Since Bush took office in 2001, textile jobs in North Carolina have fallen by 60,300 to 103,400. For the same period, apparel jobs have dropped 18,400 to 25,100. The state’s textile industry had been in decline for some time, including job losses during the administration of President Bill Clinton. The rate has increased during Bush’s term.

U.S. trade policies also are being blamed for other North Carolina manufacturing job declines, such as those in the furniture industry. State manufacturing employment since 2001 has fallen by 158,600 to 582,500, part of a nationwide decline of some 2.5 million production workers. Nationally, about 350,000 apparel and textile jobs have disappeared in four years.

Bush favors free-trade agreements and the elimination of all tariffs on industrial goods by the World Trade Organization. The administration’s policies are based on free-market theory: By lowering impediments to trade, such as tariffs, quotas and commerce regulations, Americans will export more and stimulate the U.S. economy. Bush also argues that consumers benefit from lower-priced imports in the form of lower retail prices.

This story first appeared in the October 5, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Jim Bell, president of the North Carolina Textile Manufacturers’ Association, said the number of newly registered textile workers is “extensive,” though no exact figures were available. Dobbins said about 60 percent of his 1,200 workers are registered, 40 percent of whom have joined the voter rolls for the first time. It isn’t certain whether voters favor Bush or Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry.

Voter registration in North Carolina is up 6 percent compared with 2002, indicative of a surge in new voters nationally. While Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by 651,619 registrations, there are 974,821 Independent voters, a 14.4 percent increase from two years ago.

“The question is who’s going to turn out to vote, and will they be friends and family of those who have lost jobs, and are they going to blame the Bush administration,” Dobbins said.

North Carolina is being singled out for the billboard blitz because of its importance to the industry and because it has lost the most textile jobs, said Robert DuPree, vice president of the National Council of Textile Organizations.

In addition, Dupree said, “the state could still come into play in the presidential race and there’s also a U.S. Senate race” between Democrat Erskine Bowles, the White House chief of staff under Clinton, and five-term Republican Representative Richard Burr. A Mason-Dixon poll taken for the Winston-Salem Journal and published Friday showed Bowles leading Burr by 45 percent to 44 percent.

Bush won North Carolina 56 percent to 43 percent in 2000. A Research 2000 poll, released last week before the presidential debate in which Kerry got a bump in national polls, had Bush beating Kerry 50 percent to 44 percent, with 6 percent undecided. In the Senate race, Bowles and Burr are contending for the seat being vacated by Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards. Bowles lost to Republican Elizabeth Dole in 2002 in the contest to fill Sen. Jesse Helms’ seat.

One of the textile industry’s litmus tests for candidates is whether they support keeping quotas on Chinese textile and apparel imports. The restrictions are to be lifted Jan. 1 by 147 members of the World Trade Organization. Without restraints, U.S. manufacturers fear that imports from China, where production and labor costs are a fraction of those in the U.S., will be a potential death blow to the industry.

Textile executives also favor candidates who oppose the Central American Free Trade Agreement. CAFTA was negotiated last year by Bush administration officials, but hasn’t been sent to Congress for a vote. Textile executives don’t like what they claim are job-eroding provisions that offer duty breaks for non-U.S. or Central American fabric.

They haven’t embraced Kerry outright either, although they support the Democrat’s pledge to renegotiate CAFTA and undertake a 120-day review of all free-trade pacts to determine whether they need fine-tuning for fairness. Kerry hasn’t come out in favor of reimposing Chinese apparel and textile quotas. In his 20 years in the Senate, he has voted for several trade agreements that ease or knock down trade barriers, like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Caribbean Basin and African Growth & Opportunity Act.

The Bush administration has gotten positive feedback from the textile industry by saying petitions to extend quotas on Chinese imports may be considered based on the threat of market disruption.