Everybody wanted to make their mark in a whirlwind weekend that started with a fish fry and ended with nearly all 23 Democrats running for president converging on South Carolina’s capital city to make their pitch to S.C. Democrats and abortion-rights activists.
No candidate was willing to go after anyone else, perhaps to keep the peace for at least one more weekend before 20 of the contenders get on a debate stage over two days next week and are forced to reckon with each other’s politics and policies.
The best that many could do was draw a stark visual in their campaign style.
Though U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris got attention at the state Democratic Party’s convention on Saturday saying that, as a prosecutor, “I know how to take on predators,” the California Democrat made a splash by dancing down the hall of the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center with a local high school drum line from Lower Richland High School.
And former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke met a crowd of supporters outside, and they marched into the convention room together and onto the stage when it was his turn to address attendees. On television, the Texan spoke against a backdrop of fans and signs that made it look like he was appearing at his very own campaign rally.
Two contenders in particular, however, had something particular to prove.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — two white men in their 70s who have run for president before and campaigned in South Carolina in the past — were working this weekend to show they have the momentum to carry the state’s decisive primary in early 2020, which will be decided by a majority African American electorate.
They are the candidates who, at this point in the contest, are leading in early polls for next February’s presidential preference primary, despite the dissonance of their vastly different campaign styles: Biden is touting his ability to find middle ground while Sanders is promoting Democratic socialism.
That tension was on display Saturday, as the slate of presidential hopefuls went back and forth between the state party convention and a forum hosted by Planned Parenthood Action Forum, criss-crossing one Columbia intersection to speak to their constituencies.
It could manifest itself again next Thursday, when Biden and Sanders are slated to share the stage on the second night of the first round of Democratic presidential debates.
As two of the most known commodities in the presidential field, Sanders and Biden have resonated strongly with local party voters.
Sanders’ reception was likely the product of genuine on-the-ground enthusiasm combined with crafty campaign orchestration.
On Friday night, Sanders was the only candidate to break the rules about not mingling with the thousands of attendees at the fish fry until after the speaking portion of the event. He created a buzz just by virtue of making his presence known as South Carolinians milled around Coble Plaza, sweaty in the thick Columbia humidity and impatient for the program to begin.
At the convention on Saturday, Sanders took to the stage as his supporters were fanned out across the convention hall waving signs.
Rather than have Sanders appear at the podium alone as other candidates had done, seven members of his core staff and surrogates stood in line behind him. Aside from U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who is Indian American, his other six supporters who were with him are black.
The image that resulted could resonate as a powerful visual for Sanders, who had difficulty gaining traction in 2016 with the black voters who make up more than two-thirds of the party’s primary electorate.
Sanders also set himself apart on Saturday by going after the centrist faction of the Democratic Party — also part of Biden’s constituency — while the other candidates erred on the side of criticizing the Republicans rather than their own.
“I want to say a few words about an event in Charleston — sponsored by a national organization called Third Way that represents the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, a group that receives a substantial amount of their support from Wall Street,” he said. “And at this Third Way meeting, I was called, quote, ‘an existential crisis.’”
Sanders continued: “Now, why am I an existential threat? Well, maybe it’s because my administration will finally take on the insurance companies and the drug companies and pass a Medicare for All single-payer program.”
The crowd roared.
At Clyburn’s fish fry on Friday, Biden let it be known it was his third time at the event, making him a veteran of the state’s most widely-attended gathering of Democrats. He praised Clyburn, the U.S. House majority whip, as the highest-ranking black elected official — besides “the guy I served for eight years,” referring to President Barack Obama.
Biden also set himself apart by staying at the fish fry to the bitter end to shake hands, mingle with supporters and take selfies.
One theme Democratic voters echoed throughout the weekend’s events is that Biden’s connection with the first black president is striking some unavoidably emotional chords that could be contributing to his strength among African American voters.
On the convention stage Saturday, Biden’s entrance — the last of all the candidates — gave him headliner appeal, as he rang out pledge after pledge, with most voters hanging on every word while taking video on their phones.
“It’s time we start to reward work over wealth,” said Biden, who said on the first day as president he would move to slash Trump’s tax cuts. “We need big and bold ideas.”
Showing support for abortion
Biden’s showing on the Planned Parenthood stage was particularly important for him this weekend, having endured criticism from Democratic voters and abortion rights advocates in recent weeks.
Earlier this month, Biden said he’d support the so-called Hyde Amendment — which blocks federal funding for abortions — despite telling one S.C. voter on a campaign rope line he would be willing to repeal it. Days later, he backtracked, somewhat reversing his position.
On Saturday, he couldn’t escape questions over his initial support, then reversal.
Before his audience, Biden pitched himself as a progressive, “pro-choice” candidate, saying his record speaks for itself. He said his health plan would cover services for all women, no matter their income, and resources could be used for reproductive health care.
At one revealing moment during the day’s events, Biden received a question from a West Virginia woman, who told the former Delaware senator she not only was a victim of spousal abuse, but that an abortion she had “saved her life.” Biden said more needed to be done to support victims of domestic violence.
Ultimately, he asked the woman to join him off-stage to talk further, adding, “I think I can directly help your personal situation as well.”
Sanders, who brought an enthusiastic entourage with him from the convention center, promised access to reproductive health services through the policy he has made his signature over the course of two presidential campaigns: Medicare for All.