South Carolina finds itself under the national microscope right around this time every four years. And, as it happens, this is a good time to take a closer look.
Media wags across the country habitually paint South Carolina as a pocket of extreme conservative views, where angry voters are perpetually hostile to outsiders and new ideas. That's the frame they often use to handicap the state's early presidential contests.
But beyond the ups and downs of poll numbers and delegate counts, there's a more interesting trend line to watch this year: South Carolina is changing, and it's doing so under the influence of the global auto industry.
Automakers, suppliers and other transportation companies are driving an economic transformation in the state that is slowly remaking its social fabric as well, with waves of European and Japanese companies and managers introducing new perspectives and ideas.
In short, this is not your older brother's South Carolina.
Back in 1992, some locals reacted with dread to the announcement that BMW would build a car plant in Spartanburg. They feared it would upset the local economic base with higher wages and an influx of outsiders.
And they were right.
Since then, the German automaker has invested $7 billion in Spartanburg and now employs 8,000 people. More than two-thirds of the vehicles built there were exported last year, generating nearly $10 billion in export income through the port of Charleston. Those car exports make South Carolina the nation's No. 1 exporter, and make China the state's largest trading partner.
Late last year, Chinese-owned Volvo Car Corp. sank the pilings to build its own $500 million auto plant in South Carolina, near Charleston. Volvo will start with 2,000 workers, but its intention is to build the plant into the same sort of global export base that BMW has. Daimler also said last year it will spend $500 million in South Carolina to open a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van plant near Charleston.
Such business plans are fostering growing local support for free-trade pacts and deeper international ties. In pre-BMW South Carolina, the then-dominant textile industry wanted no part of chummy foreign relations.
The BMW-Volvo-Mercedes threesome is also expected to draw a new wave of European auto suppliers into the state, keeping life busy for Bobby Hitt, the former BMW public relations manager who is now the state's secretary of commerce.
Hitt noted last week that foreign-owned companies now employ 115,000 workers in the state. Robert Bosch employs 1,200 people at a high-tech sensor plant in Anderson and this month announced an expansion of its hydraulics plant in Fountain Inn, where it employs 700.