Emily Ayala stood in a crowded hallway of a soul food joint, wiping away tears after a brief encounter with Kamala Harris.
“I told her she inspires me so much,” said Ayala, 20, overcome with emotion after receiving a pep talk from the presidential candidate.
“Just keep that passion,” Harris had instructed Ayala in a private aside, as fans jostled to get closer. She encouraged the college junior to keep “raising your hand” and pressing “to the front of the line.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ayala said.
Then the California senator swept out into the sunlight here in Myrtle Beach, where a crush of voters seeking selfies and autographs waited in the parking lot.
Harris is not leading in any presidential polls and many voters can barely pronounce her name, much less commit to supporting her at this early stage of the campaign. But on a two-day swing through South Carolina, Harris showed that she can connect not only at splashy rallies or highly produced town halls—hallmarks of the earliest days of her presidential launch—but also through tailored retail politicking, a crucial skill in the early-voting presidential primary states.
That wasn’t a given: Harris’s past campaigns were waged in California, a big and expensive state where it’s not always feasible to offer the close personal attention that voters in smaller states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina demand.
But this weekend, Harris made every effort to pull it off.
In contrast to her last trip to South Carolina, which was anchored around town halls in Charleston and Columbia that drew around 1,000 people each, this trip included stops in more rural parts of the state, including the town of Hemingway, population 411, and St. George, population 2,151 and home of the World Grits Festival.
The Hemingway event drew 165 people on Friday evening, according to Harris’s campaign, though certainly some of the attendees came from outside the town itself. In a sign of robust political organizing, women displaying Greek letters, representing a number of historically black sororities including Harris’s own, comprised a noticeable portion of the audience. And in St. George, around 175 people showed up for a Saturday morning town hall.
“It’s great for her to even be in a rural area,” said Barry McFadden, assistant principal at Hemingway High School, who said he is supporting Harris. McFadden spoke to McClatchy as voters swarmed the senator for photos after her event at a community center there. “People are a little undecided, but she gave a lasting impression.”
Onstage, she offered disciplined variations of her stump speech, using the same hand gestures and even issuing peals of laughter at the same moments, in one address after the next.
Harris—the former attorney general of California—could also slip into fiery prosecutor mode when discussing issues such as expanding access to education, or, in response to a question, the sentencing of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. She also didn’t shy away from saying, “we need a new President!”—a proactive reference to Donald Trump that other Democrats have largely sought to avoid.
But offstage, she kept it light. Harris was the consummate practiced pol, doling out hugs, vigorous bicep rubs, local knowledge (she made a point to pronounce “Horry County,” home of Myrtle Beach, correctly, with no “H”) and deference to current and former elected officials from the area.
“Any advice I really would appreciate,” she told former South Carolina state Rep. Patsy Knight, holding the ex-legislator’s hand for a moment before heading out to address the St George town hall. “I’m here to learn.”
Harris launched her South Carolina trip on International Women’s Day—something several voters noted—and she and her staff didn’t miss opportunities to call on young women during question-and-answer sessions (“Hello! I am so proud of you!” Harris told one young woman who had asked a question earlier at the Hemingway event, as she hugged her. “I’m very proud of you for asking that question,” she told another).
She also made sure to stop and chat with every toddler in sight. That’s Politics 101—but the parents loved it.
“I like your outfit,” Kendall Rydstrom, age 4, told Harris in the packed parking lot of Big Mike’s Soul Food here in Myrtle Beach, as voters waved copies of Harris’s book in her direction, asking her to sign them.
“You DO?” Harris exclaimed, eyes widening. “Look at this! We’re matching! We’re matching! You know, that’s why!”
They took a picture. Kendall’s mother, Kelly Rydstrom, 41, is voting for Harris.
“I think she is a breath of fresh air to what we have now,” she said, as Kendall squirmed.
And at the Charleston Black Expo Economic Empowerment Summit on Saturday afternoon, Harris spent nearly an hour working the room of African-American entrepreneurs. She observed the creation of baskets made from sweetgrass, greeted sorority sisters and told the grandmother of a young boy that “he’s going to remind all his adults to vote.”
That’s not to say her visit was flawless. Some Democratic officials grumbled that she only arrived for the end of a VIP breakfast in St. George, for which attendees had paid $10 a ticket. At Big Mike’s Soul Food, over the din of an enthusiastic crowd (“get the mac and cheese!” someone yelled at Harris), she appeared to mishear a shouted question about marriage equality and instead launched into discussing the importance of improving air and water quality. The loudspeaker announcement touting her appearance at the summit repeatedly referred to her as “Camilla.”
But most significantly, in conversations with more than two dozen voters and state and local elected officials across her events, many simply aren’t ready to commit at this early stage, including some who say that they prioritize seeing a woman in the White House.
“She’s in the top three for a lot of women,” said Mattie Thomas, a South Carolina Democratic activist. “Right now, everybody is looking, seeking. Everything is wide open.”
Along with Harris, voters often included former Vice President Joe Biden, if he runs, and Sen. Cory Booker (who has also prioritized rural outreach, holding several forums in the state last month), in their list of top choices. Younger voters also frequently named Sen. Bernie Sanders as a favorite.
“It’s hard to measure, but she has presence, she has a message, she has a track record,” said South Carolina State Sen. Ronnie Sabb, who attended Harris’s Hemingway event, when asked about her strength in the state. He is not endorsing anyone at the moment, he said, noting the large number of “outstanding” candidates in the race.
But, he said, “one could only conclude that she’ll be formidable.”