Dems’ pres­i­den­tial field takes spot­light in South Carolina

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - NEWS - By BILL BAR­ROW, MEG KINNARD and WILL WEISSERT As­so­ci­ated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. >> Al­most the en­tire sprawl­ing Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial field of more than 20 can­di­dates took the same stage Fri­day in the South’s first pri­mary state, look­ing to make con­nec­tions in a pri­mary bat­tle­ground that has helped pro­pel the party’s last two nom­i­nees.

For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den rein­tro­duced him­self to South Carolina vot­ers at gath­er­ings he’s at­tended many times be­fore. His ri­vals tried to con­vince a bois­ter­ous throng to con­sider a new path.

“I think I’ve been in every one of your coun­ties over the years,” Bi­den said at House Ma­jor­ity Whip Jim Cly­burn’s an­nual fish fry, a long­stand­ing event that this year has blos­somed into a cen­ter­piece ahead of the 2020 elec­tion.

The 76-year-old Bi­den touted his friend­ship with Cly­burn and other South Carolina politi­cians, in­clud­ing for­mer Sen. Fritz Hollings, whom the Demo­cratic front-run­ner eu­lo­gized ear­lier this year.

Mas­sachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, mean­while, made her usual de­tailed pol­icy pitch. Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris of Cal­i­for­nia, one of two ma­jor black can­di­dates, called at­ten­tion to civil rights heroes in a state where black vot­ers typ­i­cally make up a ma­jor­ity of Demo­cratic pri­mary elec­torates. And lesser known can­di­dates tried to cap­i­tal­ize on the spot­light, with the likes of entreprene­ur An­drew Yang get­ting a bois­ter­ous welcome de­spite barely regis­ter­ing in na­tional polls.

The fish fry is a high­light of a big political week­end in South Carolina. Can­di­dates also at­tended the state party’s an­nual fundrais­ing gala Fri­day evening ahead of the Cly­burn party. The state party con­ven­tion and a Planned Par­ent­hood fo­rum on abor­tion rights fol­lows Satur­day.

For South Carolina Democrats, it’s the cul­mi­na­tion of sev­eral decades of work rais­ing the state’s pro­file to com­pete with the at­ten­tion af­forded to Iowa and New Hamp­shire, the two states that for decades have led off pres­i­den­tial vot­ing.

The itin­er­ary gives can­di­dates a key op­por­tu­nity to court the black vot­ers who are cru­cial in South Carolina pol­i­tics, while also reach­ing a some­times un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated block of mod­er­ate whites. The elec­torate here re­flects those in other South­ern states that fol­low quickly on the nom­i­nat­ing calendar, of­fer­ing can­di­dates a prov­ing ground to test their mes­sage.

Bi­den leads most na­tional and early nom­i­nat­ing state polls, with no­table strength among South Carolina’s older black vot­ers and mod­er­ate whites that dom­i­nate the Demo­cratic pri­mary here. But lo­cals point to this week­end as a way for can­di­dates to help re­set the race ahead of the first de­bates next week in Mi­ami.

“Peo­ple see Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den as one of us, but most peo­ple are wide open,” said for­mer state party Chair­woman Carol Fowler, who is un­com­mit­ted in the pri­mary. “They just want to be part of the process of de­feat­ing Don­ald Trump.”

Nei­ther Warren nor Har­ris — two of Bi­den’s top ri­vals — mentioned the front-run­ner, but both drew a con­trast in style.

“We need big, struc­tural change in this coun­try, in this econ­omy. And big struc­tural change starts with big ideas,” Warren said, of­fer­ing a list of ways she’d spend new rev­enue from her pro­posed tax on the wealth­i­est Amer­i­can for­tunes.

Har­ris, one of two top can­di­dates who is black, called at­ten­tion to the re­cent fourth an­niver­sary of a white su­prem­a­cist mas­sacre of nine black men and women at a Charleston, South Carolina, church. And she mentioned gen­er­a­tions of civil rights activists who pre­ceded her can­di­dacy. Both groups, she said, were “heroes who fought and died for equal­ity.”

Most can­di­dates Fri­day stuck to prais­ing Cly­burn, the high­est-rank­ing black mem­ber of Congress, and promised to fo­cus on marginal­ized Amer­i­cans and the mid­dle class.

“If we bring ev­ery­one’s story into the story of this coun­try, it is only then that we will achieve the great things we want to do,” said for­mer Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, men­tion­ing that he’s al­ready cam­paigned in eco­nom­i­cally strug­gling ar­eas of the state that don’t of­ten see pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates.

New York Mayor Bill de Bla­sio touted “a simple mes­sage: work­ing peo­ple first.”

Min­nesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar em­pha­sized her de­sire to en­act again pro­vi­sions of the Vot­ing Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court.

The evening also car­ried a jovial air.

Cly­burn in­tro­duced Cory Booker as “the selfie man of the United States of Amer­ica,” a nod to the New Jersey sen­a­tor’s end­less ap­petite for cell phone pic­tures with sup­port­ers. The fa­mously lo­qua­cious Bi­den joked with Cly­burn at the con­clu­sion of his re­marks: “I did it in a minute.”

Some of the lag­ging can­di­dates en­coun­tered the re­al­i­ties of such a large field. When Colorado Sen. Michael Ben­net greeted one din­ner pa­tron, the man asked politely, “Are you one of the can­di­dates?”

Cly­burn him­self got some details wrong as em­cee, mis­pro­nounc­ing names and say­ing John Hick­en­looper, the for­mer gover­nor of Colorado, is from Cal­i­for­nia. In­tro­duc­ing Har­ris, Cly­burn bragged that he pro­nounces her oft-man­gled first name cor­rectly.

The scenes were a tri­umph for long­time South Carolina Demo­cratic play­ers. “This is chaos,” beamed Dick Har­pootlian, a state sen­a­tor and for­mer state party chair­man as he awaited the fundrais­ing din­ner.

Stand­ing nearby, Fowler called it “the big­gest crowd we’ve ever had,” re­fer­ring both to donors and can­di­dates.

She and her hus­band, for­mer Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee Chair­man Don Fowler, were political celebri­ties in their own right Fri­day, with well-wish­ers thank­ing the cou­ple for help­ing to se­cure South Carolina’s place as an early nom­i­nat­ing state.

Cly­burn, mean­while, is en­joy­ing a bump in his al­ready con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence. He’s the third-rank­ing Demo­crat in the House and the most senior black law­maker on Capi­tol Hill. His fish fry be­gan in 1992 in a park­ing deck near the South Carolina State­house as a way to thank volunteers who helped him se­cure his first con­gres­sional vic­tory. It was also an al­ter­na­tive for activists who couldn’t af­ford to at­tend the party fundraiser.

MEG KINNARD

Peo­ple gather for Ma­jor­ity Whip Jim Cly­burn’s “World Fa­mous Fish Fry” Fri­day, June 21, 2019 in Columbia, S.C. Twen­ty­one of the Democrats seeking their party’s pres­i­den­tial nomination were ex­pected to speak at the event, a main­stay on the cam­paign trail through this early-vot­ing state.

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