Bill Barrow and Catherine Lucey
KINGSTREE, S.C.: Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has South Carolina mostly to herself two days before the first-in-the-South primary, and she’s using it to capitalize on her advantage over Bernie Sanders with black voters.
The Vermont senator, meanwhile, is spending Thursday traversing the Great Lakes region in states that hold early March primaries with much whiter electorates than South Carolina and the Deep South, where Clinton maintains a strong enough lead that could help her establish a clear earned-delegate boost in the coming weeks.
Given those dynamics, Clinton played up her allegiance to President Barack Obama as she addressed a friendly crowd Thursday in tiny Kingstree, South Carolina.
“I’m really proud to stand with President Obama, and I’m really proud to stand with the progress he’s made,” she said of the nation’s first black president who defeated her 74 percent to 17 percent in surrounding Williamsburg County in their primary fight eight years ago. “I need your help, starting with this primary on Saturday.”
Clinton also said she wants a genuine liberal to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the Feb. 13 death of conservative icon Antonin Scalia.
“I sure hope the president chooses a true progressive who will stand up for the values and the interests of the people,” Clinton said of a seat that will determine the ideological tilt of a court left with a 4-4 split between liberals and conservatives.
Those comments came after White House officials told the Associated Press that the president’s list of potential nominees includes Nevada’s Republican governor, Brian Sandoval. The president is locked in high-stakes gamesmanship with Senate Republicans, who insist they will not give any Obama nominee a hearing.
Also in Kingstree, Clinton repeated her pledge to fight for stricter gun regulations, an issue that resonates among black voters nationally and in South Carolina, which was shaken in June when a white gunman killed the pastor and nine others at a historically black church in Charleston.
“I’m going to take them on,” Clinton said of the gun lobby. “I know how hard this is politically.”
She’s used the issue to highlight some of Sanders’ Senate votes against certain firearms bills, prompting the senator to explain that he has a lifetime D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association.
Ben McGill, an undecided voter from Andrews, South Carolina, suggests Clinton’s tactics have worked. “I do think she has more of an interest in gun control,” he explained Thursday. McGill added that the issue is personal for him because his elderly aunt and uncle were injured in a Baltimore shooting earlier this week.
Clinton’s appearance about 70 miles north of Charleston was the first of four stops Thursday. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has multiple appearances, as well. Sanders is scheduled to return to South Carolina on Friday. In the meantime, rapper Killer Mike of Atlanta is campaigning here on his behalf.
Her busy Thursday schedule follows a private fundraiser Wednesday in which Clinton was interrupted by a protester from Black Lives Matter, a group of mostly young activists that formed in response to several high-profile instances of black citizens dying or being killed during encounters with police.
A widely circulated video of the event shows a young woman interrupting Clinton and asking her to “apologize to black people for mass incarceration.” The two talked over each other before the protester was escorted out and the candidate resumed her remarks.
Most of Clinton’s schedule this week has taken her to majority black communities where Obama trounced her in 2008 on his way to a 29-point statewide victory. This time, with the advantage, leaving Sanders to prove he can expand his base beyond his massive crowds that typically are overwhelmingly white, even in states with significant black populations.
Sanders insisted Thursday that he is not writing off South Carolina or any of the Deep South states with upcoming primaries. “We have waged a very, very vigorous campaign; we have picked up a lot of support,” he said, pointing out his initial single-digit polling in South Carolina. “We have closed the gap very, very significantly.”
Yet many South Carolina voters say they are simply more familiar with Clinton.
“It probably would matter to the citizens of Williamsburg County” if Sanders campaigned there, said Barbara White, a 55-year-old Kingstree resident who came to hear Clinton. “Everybody here is for Hillary anyway.”
South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison said Thursday that he expects turnout Saturday to fall somewhere between the 292,000 voters who cast ballots in 2004 and the record 515,000 who voted in the 2008 primary.