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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti tours downtown Greenville on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018 with Greenville Mayor Pro Tem Jil Littlejohn. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

GREENVILLE — Eric Garcetti insists he's plenty busy just being mayor of Los Angeles right now.

But as he traversed early presidential primary state South Carolina this week, the 47-year-old California native was already testing a national-oriented stump speech.

He stopped by a Waffle House in Mauldin. He autographed baseballs. He roused a diverse crowd in the Democratic stronghold of lower Richland County. He toured an automotive research center at Clemson University wearing a tiger paw lapel pin. He raised more than $30,000 for local Democrats and met with many of the state party's most influential movers and shakers.

If only he had kissed a few babies' foreheads, the White House ambitions would have risen beyond doubt.

“I wish I could say that Mayor Garcetti was here because of me,” joked U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, at a Wednesday unveiling for a statue of the first black professor at the University of South Carolina. “But I think he has other things on his mind.”

Early moves

A full two years before the 2020 South Carolina Democratic presidential race, Garcetti's journey more than 2,300 miles from home marked a surprisingly early exploration of a campaign in the early-primary state. But Democratic insiders commended Garcetti for getting a head start. 

The 2016 election was unusual, said Charleston Democratic Party Chairman Brady Quirk-Garvan. The Hillary Clinton campaign already had deep roots in South Carolina before the race even began from her run in 2008.

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, right, sits next to Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin at a Wednesday ceremony. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

"In a year like 2020 when it's much more open, it takes time to build those relationships," Quirk-Garvan said, "and if you want people to go to bat for you in 2020 in the heat of a primary, it's important to be reaching out and talking to them and building those bridges right now."

A bevy of Democratic presidential contenders have already visited Iowa and New Hampshire, both smaller early-primary states where many voters expect to meet candidates in their living rooms.

South Carolina has seen just a few brief appearances so far, including former Vice President Joe Biden, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland. 

Though he has emerged as one of the most popular Democrats in the western half of the country, Garcetti remains a relatively unknown figure on the East Coast.

As he wandered the streets of downtown Greenville on Thursday, passersby wouldn't have batted an eye were it not for the conspicuous camera crews and besuited aides following in tow. 

On the stump, Garcetti is light on policy specifics and heavy on the type of hope-and-change rhetoric that launched a little-known Illinois senator with an unusual name to the presidency in 2008. He voices progressive ideals but tries to do so less antagonistically. 

He has described himself as "a single-payer guy" on health care. He called for stricter gun restrictions in the wake of this month's Florida high school shooting. He's pro-choice. He prefers a "universal pathway to employment" over the universal basic income proposal some have offered. As a Mexican-American Jew, he proudly touts his own immigrant ancestry.

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, left, tours an automotive research center at Clemson University on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

While Garcetti is not afraid to talk policy, he posits that's not how elections are won.

"We need to speak plain English again," Garcetti said of Democrats. "We can't be the smarty-pants party anymore. I know we have good ideas and once we're in power we should do them, but when we're running elections, people don't want to know your 10-point plan for things. They want to know if you connect with them as a human being."

Local background

No mayor has ever ascended directly to the presidency. But Garcetti and his allies often note that Los Angeles has a bigger population than 23 states.

"I think what the Democrats need is someone who can solve problems and deal with real issues on the ground, and mayors really have the opportunity to be that kind of leader," said Dick Riley, a former S.C. governor and U.S. education secretary.

Garcetti sought to cast the glitzy reputation of LA as not so estranged from the everyday problems of Americans elsewhere.

"Yes, it’s true, I come from Los Angeles and we have a few more Kardashians than you do," he said in lower Richland. "But we are mostly nurses and firefighters and factory workers and janitors and people who have dreams and hopes and are just as frustrated as you are about the direction of this country."

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks at a town hall in lower Richland County on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

In the heavily African-American section of South Carolina's capital county, Garcetti talked about the long history of federal support for municipalities.

"But today it’s the reverse," Garcetti said. "You see, Washington is so broken that people are coming back to our cities for help. We’re seeing such a revival of hope and optimism and innovation where we live in our local communities that we’re knocking on Washington’s door saying, 'America’s cities are going to save you.'"

African-American outreach

Besides its "First in the South" status, another distinguishing feature of South Carolina's presidential primary is that it is the first Democratic contest among the early states that has a substantial bloc of African-American voters. It also has a history of divisive racial politics.

A bus tour with Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin allowed Garcetti to get the low-down on some of the thornier issues he may encounter in S.C. When the bus passed a building that used to be a printing plant for Confederate money, Benjamin quipped that "some people still think [the Confederate money] has value."

Patricia Randolph, a retired Richland County high school teacher, said there's no secret to win over black voters like herself in South Carolina, no specific policy that needs endorsing, no magic words that will do the trick. 

What minority voters want, Randolph said, is to be heard. Just by showing up in lower Richland, and especially by doing so long before the deluge of presidential candidates descend on the state in the heat of primary season, Garcetti had already proven his interest.

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti talks to Patricia Randolph, a retired Richland County public school teacher. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

Better yet, Randolph added, Garcetti talked about a vision for the future, rather than harping on his problems with Republican President Donald Trump.

"Don’t tell me what’s going on with No. 45. I know that," Randolph said in reference to Trump, the 45th U.S. president. "Tell me what’s going to happen with No. 46.”

If he wants to win a Democratic primary in South Carolina, Quirk-Garvan said that on his next trip Garcetti will need to spend some time down in the Lowcountry. Garcetti said he plans to do just that.

"I think," Garcetti said, "this is the first of many visits to South Carolina for me."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.