When the Democratic presidential candidates debate here Sunday, their immediate goal will be to shore up their support in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Democrats vote early next month in close races.
But the Charleston backdrop also is significant.
The debate stage will be down the street from “Mother Emanuel,” the AME church where nine African-Americans were slain in June during a Bible study, thrusting South Carolina into the national spotlight and the gun control debate.
The S.C. setting also is a reminder of the commanding lead Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has in the Palmetto State, a lead that could propel her to her party’s nomination.
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A decisive win in South Carolina’s Feb. 27 Democratic presidential primary would serve as Clinton’s “firewall” – protecting her against the impact of potential losses in earlier-voting Iowa and New Hampshire.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ rise in polls in those states is raising questions about the supposed inevitability of the former secretary of state’s nomination.
However, the S.C. contest will be different, in large part because it will be the first test of the Democratic candidates’ support among African-American voters.
Black voters, one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal voting blocs, make up only a tiny portion of the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. But they make up more than half of South Carolina’s Democratic voters.
After South Carolina, the Democratic contest will move across the South, with large numbers of African-American voters, into more than two dozen states in March.
Winning South Carolina would set up Clinton to win the Democratic nomination, said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts, adding a Clinton victory also is the most likely outcome in South Carolina, where some Democrats tend to be more conservative.
“Clinton is the ultimate moderate Democrat,” he said. “She gets pushed by (U.S. Sen.) Elizabeth Warren (a Massachusetts Democrat) and Bernie Sanders because she’s more willing to cross the aisle and stake out hawkish positions on defense.”
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley also will participate in Sunday’s debate on NBC. But, so far, the Democratic race has been between Clinton, a former secretary of state and first lady propelled by a family legacy, and Sanders, a Vermont independent and self-described democratic socialist with populist appeal.
In South Carolina, Clinton leads by 40 percentage points, according to an average of polls.
To gain that advantage, Clinton has waged an aggressive statewide grassroots campaign. She has built coalitions focused heavily on African-Americans, including mayors and state legislators. She also has secured endorsements from two former S.C. governors and other Democratic leaders. High-profile surrogates – from U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey to TV personality Star Jones – also have campaigned for her.
In an attempt to cut into Clinton’s lead with S.C. black voters, Sanders has touted its alliances with Black Lives Matter activists and student leaders at historically black colleges and universities.
The Sanders campaign – with more than 50 paid S.C. staffers and offices across the state – says its volunteers have knocked on more than 165,000 doors statewide and attempted to reach 500,000 voters, roughly the number of ballots cast in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
The Clinton camp says it hit that mark in November.
Not like Obama
Wins by Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire could be game changers, proving – as President Barack Obama did by winning Iowa in 2008 against Clinton – that Sanders is electable and shift the tides in South Carolina in his favor, Sanders’ S.C. director Chris Covert says.
But Sanders’ S.C. poll numbers only have inched up thus far.
Polls put Sanders’ support among black S.C. Democratic voters at 8 percent in November and 19 percent in December. By comparison, Clinton had 80 percent support from S.C. African-Americans in both polls.
Sanders also has more ground to make up against Clinton than Obama did in 2008.
In 2008, Obama was less of an underdog to Clinton in South Carolina than Sanders is this year.
In that race, Obama tied Clinton in South Carolina in mid-December. This primary season, Sanders trailed Clinton by 36 percentage points in mid-December.
Taking nothing for granted
Still, the possibility of Sanders gaining traction in the Palmetto State if he wins Iowa is not lost of S.C. Democrats.
“It’s just like the weak spot for Barack Obama was his skin color, but he got cured of that in Iowa,” U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, told The Washington Post.
“If (Sanders) comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire with big victories ... hey, man, it could very well be a new day,” Clyburn said.
Sanders’ rising numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire are rattling Clinton’s supporters, reminding them of Clinton’s slide in 2008 against Obama. In response, Clinton’s campaign has gone on the attack, working to cast doubt in voters’ minds about Sanders’ record on health care, gun control and other issues.
For example, daughter Chelsea Clinton recently went after Sanders on the campaign trail, saying Sanders’ Medicare-for-all health care plan would empower Republican governors to take away health benefits for low-income families – a claim deemed mostly false by Politifact.
“Going after Bernie for trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act is evidence that they’re a little worried,” said Amanda Loveday, a former S.C. Democratic Party official who says she’s undecided in the presidential primary.
But the new aggressive approach makes sense to Charleston’s Knotts.
“Clinton’s done this once before, put in a huge effort and not been successful,” said the political scientist. “I don’t think she wants to take anything for granted.”
Democratic presidential debate
The Democratic candidates for president will debate Sunday from Charleston
Where to watch: NBC television stations and digital platforms and the NBC YouTube channel
When: Airs live 9 to 11 p.m. The debate will re-air on MSNBC at 11 p.m.