TITUSVILLE, Fla. - In a small storefront museum tucked away downtown, visitors can linger over the binder containing the preflight checklist for Alan B. Shepard's 1961 Mercury mission, fiddle with an antique launch console, and gaze at space suits once worn by the greats and now hanging slack on the walls.
"This is when America did great things," Sunni Musick, 55, mused as she inspected the glass exhibit cases Saturday at the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum.
Back in the early 1960s, there was no need for politicians to assert the doctrine of "American exceptionalism." It was a given. Astronaut heroes roared up and down Highway A1A in their Detroit muscle cars, boasting of their exploits in the bars of nearby Cocoa Beach. We were going to the moon!
Now the Space Coast, the region that earned its income and identity from NASA - the area code is 321, the blastoff countdown, while schools and roads are named for astronauts - has fallen on hard times. Its economic angst has played a featured role in the Florida Republican primary for president, centered on the battle between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, with the outcome to be decided Tuesday.
Brevard County, which contains most of the Space Coast, lost an estimated 13,000 jobs with the shutdown last summer of the space-shuttle program. Although local leaders are pushing ecotourism (a birding festival is under way here) and cruise ships dock at the port on Cape Canaveral, unemployment stands at 10.8 percent, compared with 9.9 percent statewide and 8.5 percent nationally.
People are walking away from their mortgages, housing prices have continued to drop, and storefronts are shuttered along the coastal highway Route 1 and Florida Highway 3, the main approach to the employees' gate of the Kennedy Space Center.
"I'm watching my business slowly dissipate down to nothing, working more hours for less," said Stephen Gaughran, who has owned Sparky's Family Billiards, a pool hall in downtown Titusville, for 22 years.
"I'm at the bottom of the fishbowl," he said Sunday. "I survive on people's disposable income, and these days more of their 'disposable' income is going into the gas tank to get to and from work."
Sparky's used to fill every night with NASA employees, but on Saturday only one of the 13 tables was in use; the previous Saturday, Gaughran said, no customers appeared.
He has become a supporter of the local tea-party movement, and likes to spread an anti-President Obama message wherever he goes by posting small stickers: "How's that 'hope and change' working out for you?" One adorns his front door, and a bumper sticker on the back of Gaughran's pickup proclaims 1/20/13 - the date of the next presidential inauguration - as the "end of an error."
The Space Coast anchors the Atlantic Ocean end of the populous Interstate 4 corridor, which stretches across central Florida from the Gulf of Mexico and often decides elections; the corridor cast the largest share - 26 percent - of the vote in the 2008 GOP primary, which was won by Sen. John McCain.
Gingrich, the former House speaker, has made a bold play for votes in the region, pledging to have a permanent colony on the moon by the end of his second term as president. He made the vow during a jammed rally at a Holiday Inn Express in Cocoa that brought people to their feet.
He said he had a "romantic notion" that space exploration was part of the nation's "destiny," and said he was sick of political leaders thinking small, timid thoughts.
Gingrich's pledge became a flashpoint in Thursday's CNN debate, when Romney blasted it as a wasteful pander.
"The speaker comes here to Florida, wants to spend an untold amount of money having a colony on the moon," the former Massachusetts governor said. "In South Carolina it was a new interstate highway, and dredging the port in Charleston. In New Hampshire, it was burying a power line coming in from Canada and building a new VHA hospital . . .. Going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into the trouble we're in now. We've got to say no to this kind of spending."
A Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times poll released late Saturday found that Romney, who has pounded Gingrich with attack ads focusing on ethics charges against him in the 1990s and other lapses, had widened his lead in Florida. Romney had the support of 42 percent of the 500 likely GOP primary voters surveyed, to 31 percent for Gingrich. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum drew 14 percent and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, 6 percent. The poll's margin of error was 4.5 percentage points.
Gaughran, 56, who moved to the Space Coast in 1966 from New York when his father went to work on the Apollo program, would love to see a big new space program, but he dismissed the Gingrich proposal as a stunt. "Where's the money coming from?" he said. "We already have $15 trillion in debt."
Sunni Musick, who admired the spirit and vision of the early U.S. space program, said she could not support Gingrich, calling him a "loose cannon." She has not decided whom to support.
Fred Perry, a part-time curator at the Space Walk museum, said he planned to vote for Gingrich because "all politicians stretch things, but he's a hell of a lot more honest than Romney" and "knows the ins and outs of how Washington works." Perry, 64, said he was optimistic about the region, thinking the economy would diversify as businesses move in to take advantage of lower land costs.
"Gingrich's idea of a moon colony sounds crazy, but at least it's a vision," said a middle-aged police officer named Cesar, who did not want to give his last name because he works for the federal government.
Gaughran, the pool-hall owner, said he would vote for Santorum because he seems like the most consistent conservative in the race, not that Gaughran expects to get much help from Washington regardless of who's in the White House.
"My future is being taken away from me piece by piece," Gaughran said. "I'm going to fight. I'm going to continue raising my voice."