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Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris cheers for Marcus Johnson, who accepts an excellence in education award from Dot Scott at the NAACP’s 102nd annual Freedom Fund Banquet held at the Gaillard Center ballroom Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris on Saturday left Iowa for South Carolina, where she sought to leave a lasting impression among African American voters as her campaign prepares to plant a flag here but pivot hard back to the Hawkeye State.

Speaking to an audience of several hundred people who attended the Charleston NAACP's 102nd annual Freedom Fund Banquet, the California senator sought to show how closely she has been paying attention to South Carolina voters.

"We will only make and sustain the progress we need when we elect and lift up people to lead who are also immersed in our community, who represent us and our experience," she said to the overwhelmingly black audience.

She said the time had come for a new president, and she also said it was time for someone new, by way of a comment interpreted as aiming at former Vice President Joe Biden.

"We don't need to look for ways to inflame the ideological battles in our nation and/or launch a nostalgia campaign to re-tread mindsets and goals from decades past," she said. "It's time to look into the mirror, as a nation, and look at who we are right now."


Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at the NAACP’s 102nd annual Freedom Fund Banquet held at the Gaillard Center ballroom Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The event, which acts as the primary fundraiser for the Charleston NAACP, is a high-profile affair that has hosted its share of presidential candidates.

In 2015, the keynote address came from Hillary Clinton. In 2017, it was delivered by Biden.

Harris' comments focused on how her experiences growing up led her to work in the criminal justice system, but it also served as her last major speech to voters before her campaign prepares to turn its efforts toward Iowa voters.

Even as she sat at the Charleston NAACP event, her campaign account tweeted, "I don't know if you heard, but I'm moving to Iowa!"

The move is significant. More than any other Democratic presidential candidate, Harris has made South Carolina an essential part of her overall campaign strategy.

During her first visit to the Lowcountry in February, she told more than 1,000 attendees at a North Charleston town hall that she planned to spend a lot of time in South Carolina.

In July, her campaign could boast 47 paid staffers in the Palmetto State — more than any other presidential candidate. Additionally, Harris has spent more time in South Carolina than she has in both New Hampshire and Nevada combined.

But this week, the effort shifted.

"The emphasis is on Iowa," Communications Director Lily Adams was reported as saying during a conference call with reporters. "We've got to put Iowa first."

Harris still has South Carolina, the first-in-the-South primary state, on her mind. She caught a flight out of Iowa so that she arrived in Charleston sometime around 6 p.m.

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Jerusalem Demsas, spokeswoman for the Harris campaign in South Carolina, said the Harris team here will double its organizing staff in the coming months and open offices in Florence and Orangeburg.

"Kamala Harris' investment in South Carolina is unprecedented for a Democratic presidential candidate. In addition to making the most trips to the state of any top-tier candidate, Kamala has made sure to visit pockets of the state that rarely receive attention," Demsas said in an emailed statement.

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Rev. Eric Manning, from Emanuel A.M.E. Church, speaks with Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris at the NAACP’s 102nd annual Freedom Fund Banquet held at the Gaillard Center ballroom Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Other 2020 candidates sought to win over South Carolina's all-important black vote with efforts Saturday.

Bernie Sanders' campaign rallied supporters at two historically black South Carolina colleges Saturday afternoon, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms stumped for Joe Biden at Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in Columbia.

In an interview with The Post and Courier, Bottoms argued Biden's support is more stable than critics realize.

"Any candidate who starts out extremely high is likely to fall just a bit, but I've not seen particularly African American support waver from Joe Biden and it goes back to the fact that we know Joe Biden," Bottoms said. "We know the eight years he spent with President Obama pushing forward this agenda that tremendously benefited the African-American community."

And at the NAACP event where Harris spoke, Biden's presence managed to be there in a full-page ad printed on page 47 of the banquet's program.

Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this report.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.