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How Hillary Clinton Changed Her South Carolina Playbook

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 27/02/2016 Samantha Lachman
ATHENA IMAGE © Scott Olson via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- As Hillary Clinton heads into Saturday's Democratic presidential primary, she is not taking her more-than-comfortable lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the state polls for granted.

Clinton, her husband Bill and her daughter Chelsea have appeared at dozens of events around the state, as have African-American Democratic political leaders like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) who have endorsed her bid for the nomination.  

Sanders, in contrast, wasn’t in South Carolina Thursday, and was only scheduled to hold two rallies in the state Friday afternoon and evening. Instead, the senator has invested time in states with primaries and caucuses scheduled for next month, such as Oklahoma, and he will be in Texas and Minnesota Saturday evening -- places where he needs to rack up delegates to still have a shot at beating Clinton.

If Clinton wins on Saturday, as she is expected to, it will be in large part a result of what her team learned from 2008. Eight years ago, then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois dominated among African-American voters, who make up a majority of the primary electorate here, while also picking up roughly 25 percent of the white vote. Clinton held a lead among black voters for months ahead of that primary and had high-profile endorsements from black officials. But Obama’s campaign out-organized her team on the ground,  convincing many skeptical voters that he was, in fact, a viable candidate following his win in the Iowa caucus.

Bill Clinton also managed to alienate some in the state during that primary when he appeared to dismiss Obama’s victory in South Carolina by noting that Jesse Jackson, an African-American, had twice won the state. This time around, the former President Clinton has been visible at a number of get-out-the-vote events and rallies for his wife, but has stayed on message.

During a surprise stop Friday morning at Drip, a Columbia coffee shop, Bill Clinton told The Huffington Post that he is confident his wife will win Saturday. “All the people who were for her then are helping her now," he said, "and then she’s got a lot of people who supported President Obama.”

Clinton’s campaign has been criticized this election for lacking a coherent message, a criticism she also faced in 2008. Obama’s message of hope and change proved to be more appealing than Clinton’s emphasis on her experience and qualifications. But in South Carolina this year, Clinton has found a theme and stuck with it: She’s a fighter who will help others break down barriers to opportunity.

On Thursday, Clinton spoke at a Baptist church in Florence alongside Booker. The crowd was at capacity, forcing a fire marshal to bar another 50 people who showed up from entering -- including this reporter. But dozens stuck around to listen to Booker and Clinton over speakers piped outside.

“I don’t know if there’s a politician in America with more grit and determination and resilience than her,” Booker said. “Because every step of the way she was attacked, she was backstabbed, she was pulled back, she was tripped up, but she kept rising to better levels of service every single time.

"We know that there’s been no step along this journey to justice that hasn’t been fought with people trying to push you back,” he continued.

South Carolina faced two racially fraught tragedies last year. Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was killed by a white police officer in April; in June, a mass shooting at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston left nine people dead. Clinton advocated for racial justice and healing after those events, and held a forum Tuesday with mothers of unarmed young blacks who have been killed in high-profile acts of brutality. Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton; Sandra Bland's mother, Geneva Reed-Veal; Maria Hamilton, the mother of Dontre Hamilton; Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis and Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, attended.

Clinton's more personal approach seems to be working.

“She’s more in the trenches compared to what she was doing before,” said Tatt Enhead, a 43-year-old Methodist preacher, who was listening outside of the church in Florence. “Before, she talked about things that pertained to the community, but you’re seeing her much more in the community than in previous times.”

Clinton and her supporters have also tried to cast doubt on Sanders’ authenticity as an advocate for racial justice and criminal justice reform. Booker suggested, at a Thursday event at the historically black Benedict College in Columbia, that Sanders had come to such issues too late.

“Hillary was talking about these issues before it was election time," he said. "She was in the trenches fighting for the things I care about, not just today and not just yesterday." 

Sanders supporters would respond by noting that the senator was arrested protesting segregation in Chicago in 1963 and attended the historic March on Washington that year. 

Democrats voting for Clinton told HuffPost they appreciate that Clinton honors the achievements Obama has made in office while she campaigns. 

To hammer that message home, Priorities USA, a super PAC backing Clinton, is running radio ads here featuring former Attorney General Eric Holder's endorsement of Clinton, emphasizing that Obama chose Holder to defend voting rights and investigate police misconduct. Other ads for Clinton similarly emphasize her connection to Obama. 

In Florence, Darlean Faust-Sellers said that while she was still not a fan of Bill Clinton's 2008 remarks about Obama, she was even more displeased with Sanders suggestion in 2011 that another Democrat should challenge his re-election bid.

“I just thought it was unprofessional for [Sanders] to be running a campaign for the Democratic Party and he chose to talk against President Obama,” she said. “Who does that?"

Clinton, she said, has earned the support of South Carolina voters: "Hillary has status because she’s been there through the thick and the thin; she’s been doing things to prove herself worthy." 

Hillary has status because she’s been there through the thick and the thin; she’s been doing things to prove herself worthy. Darlean Faust-Sellers, South Carolina voter

Clinton drew big applause at a forum in North Charleston Thursday evening when she boasted that she is “a proud Democrat ” -- an implicit critique of Sanders, an independent who has distanced himself from the Democratic Party. Clinton emphasized the importance of having a strong party leader at the top of the ticket in November.

“I support Democrats, and I want to help elect Democratic senators, especially after this latest behavior by the Republicans in the Senate to deny the president the right to send a Supreme Court nominee to the Senate -- that has just gone way too far,” she said. “This has to be a priority. I will be the head of the Democratic Party and I take that seriously, and I want to help South Carolina field more Democrats at the local and state level.”

Charnita Mack, a 22-year-old journalism student at the University of South Carolina, told HuffPost Thursday that she was voting for Clinton because she likes her positions on early childhood education and gun safety. She predicted Clinton would win by a comfortable margin Saturday.

“She has a lot of African-American support, mainly because of how much she supports Obama,” Mack said. “We want somebody we feel like we can trust when Obama leaves.”

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