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100 days before SC primary, Biden maintains lead while Democratic rivals maintain hope

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Election 2020 Debate

Democratic presidential candidates from left, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., former technology executive Andrew Yang and investor Tom Steyer wave to the audience before a Democratic presidential primary debate on Wednesday night in Atlanta. (John Amis/AP)

COLUMBIA — A hotly contested Democratic presidential primary race in South Carolina that began more than a year before any votes would be cast now has just 100 days left, giving an array of White House hopefuls just a few more months to shake up an electoral picture that has been relatively static so far.

Dozens of candidates — some of whom later dropped out — have held more than 460 events in the Palmetto State since the start of the race, according to The Post and Courier's tracker.

Campaign staff and volunteers have worked around the clock to contact hundreds of thousands of voters, knocking on doors, calling and texting phones and setting up field offices in every corner of the state to try to win more support.

Holding onto a consistent, double-digit lead in every poll of South Carolina Democrats has been former Vice President Joe Biden, whose front-runner status has slowly faded in other early-voting primary states but remained rock solid in the first state with a substantial African-American population.

In a memo to supporters Thursday, Biden's S.C. state director Kendall Corley said the campaign now has 45 paid staffers, five offices and five regional political directors, each of whom have already worked on campaigns in those regions before. He returns to the state Thursday for a town hall in Greenwood.

"While we feel very strongly about our position in South Carolina, we are not taking anything for granted," Corley said. "And we believe Joe Biden’s travel to the state and the work our team on the ground has put in is reflective of that."

Chasing at Biden's heels are more than a half dozen serious contenders, some of whom are banking their campaigns' hopes on a strong performance in South Carolina.

All argue they are putting in the work to gain momentum, whether it is reflected in the polls yet or not, and they point to last-minute shifts in previous South Carolina primaries — most notably 2008, when Barack Obama came from behind to defeat Hillary Clinton — as evidence that the race is far from over.

U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a pair of candidates with the most unabashedly left-wing policy platforms in the field, tend to place in second and third respectively in most polls of likely Democratic primary voters.

Sanders has worked aggressively to reverse his fortunes from 2016 — when Clinton steamrolled him in South Carolina — by coming early and often to predominantly black communities and building the largest paid staff in the state at 64.

Sanders campaign said they have now reached over 750,000 voters, which would be more than double the size of the entire S.C. Democratic electorate from 2016. Warren has 40 staffers with 10 offices around the state.

They are followed by Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who surprised the political world by rising to the top of the field in the mostly white state of Iowa but has struggled to win over black voters in South Carolina. His campaign recently announced plans to spend $2 million on advertising in the state to try to change that.

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U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey have held far more events in South Carolina than any other candidates and hired some of the state's top political talent to lead their efforts, but both of the high-profile African-American candidates have found it difficult to emerge from the pack.

Still, both have arguably put themselves in the best positions to capitalize if Biden's support from black voters begins to falter.

Harris' campaign announced Thursday that they had made over 1.8 million voter outreach attempts since the start of the race, with most of them targeted towards black and female voters. She will continue that trend this weekend, focusing her 15th trip to the state, the most of any candidate in the field.

“Kamala Harris has invested more of her time, energy, and resources into this primary than any other candidate and we fully intend to win the South Carolina primary,” said Harris' S.C. state director Jalisa Washington-Price.

Booker's fundraising difficulties almost led him to drop out of the race, but he's maintained a South Carolina staff of 20 almost entirely comprised of natives and continues to draw sizable crowds.

Despite a late start, billionaire hedge fund manager and liberal activist Tom Steyer has shot into contention by spending far more than any other candidate on South Carolina advertising, in which he argues he is best positioned to expose Trump as a "fraud."

He recently picked up endorsements from three state lawmakers. And though Steyer's deputy state director resigned over allegations that he downloaded Harris' volunteer data, his campaign said they now have 50 S.C. staffers and are expecting to add more organizers in the next couple weeks.

A few wildcards include entrepreneur Andrew Yang, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.

Many South Carolina voters have yet to fully tune in to the race, with some waiting for the field to winnow down. Instead, it got bigger recently when former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick got into the race and made his first trip to S.C. this week.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also now appears likely to make a late entry, and though he is not expected to emphasize South Carolina, he's already locked down one of the most sought-after endorsements from Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.

Candidates have now begun to officially file to appear on South Carolina's Democratic primary ballot. With a deadline of Dec. 4, so far only Sanders and Buttigieg have filed, though the rest of the field is expected to sign on in the coming days. Biden plans to file in person Friday in Abbeville.

The frantic home stretch may not have arrived just yet, but it's in sight.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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