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U.S. Sen. Cory Booker answers a question during a town hall event at the International Longshoremen's Hall on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

As hundreds of people shuffled toward the side entrance of Charleston's International Longshoremen's Association Hall, members of Cory Booker's presidential campaign organizing team moved with purpose.

"Raise your hand if you are committed to Cory Booker," they asked, prompting a singular few to raise their hands while others shrugged their shoulders or shook their heads.

Dorris Coaxum, 85, kept her hands by her side.

Her uncertainty was what brought her to the presidential town hall hosted Monday night by state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston. It's also why she came here last month when Kimpson hosted a town hall with former Vice President Joe Biden.

Like other Democratic presidential primary voters in South Carolina, Coaxum said she was looking for clarity on issues she cares about, like health care and education, but she wanted clarity on the intangible: A gut feeling that she had found her candidate. 

And as a lifelong member of Charleston's Emanuel AME Church, she came looking for hope after a weekend of carnage, in which two mass shootings happened in the span of 13 hours, first at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and later at a popular entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio.

Booker told The Post and Courier the town hall was not only about persuading voters but also was healing.

"A lot of folks were hurting after these two horrible mass shootings, as well as the shootings that have happened here recently in South Carolina," Booker said after the event. 

Despite holding more campaign events in the state than any other Democratic presidential candidate, the New Jersey senator has struggled to make inroads here with voters. 

According to a Post and Courier/Change Research poll in mid-June of likely South Carolina Democratic primary voters, the Palmetto State favorites so far are former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Nationwide, he's not faring much better.

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Dorris Coaxum, 85 of West Ashley, asks U.S. Sen. Cory Booker a question during a town hall event at the International Longshoremen's Hall on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Despite having a few breakout moments during last week's Democratic primary debates, national polls showed Booker did not see much of a bump. According to a Morning Consult poll conducted after the prime-time debates, 32 percent of Democratic voters said they still want to see Biden as their party's ultimate presidential nominee. Booker, meanwhile, was polling 3 percent.

He seemed to acknowledge that reality when he started.

"Folks don't know ultimately what I'm about," Booker said before launching into what he would have done differently from President Donald Trump to address the recent shootings.

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"What is going to solve this crisis as we had other moral moments is not waiting on a president. It is for us as a people not to accept this and demand from our politicians to do something different," he said, calling it "a conspiracy of love." 

Booker then criticized Trump for saying the recent shootings were due to video games and mental health issues.

"Other nations have video games. Other nations have mental health," he said. "What makes us different is we are the one country ... where we have such ease of access to guns."

Booker took a total of 25 questions, which ranged from questions on teacher raises (he supports them) to addressing the struggles of seniors (he got an "amen" when he said people should not have to spend their entire life savings to qualify for Medicaid).

Ray Fancher of West Ashley was among the 350 who turned out to hear from Booker. Fancher said Democratic presidential candidates are struggling to blend policy proposals with a broader universal message needed to unify not only Democrats but the nation.

"If it's about winning — and unless there are some more stumbles, and there have been some — it'd be Biden," Fancher said when asked about who he would vote for if the election were held today. "But honestly, I think that is out of fear — fear that Trump could win again. But I just don't know if (Biden) is going to be our best option long-term."

By the end of the event, Coaxum had her answer. She was standing at the microphone telling Booker he was "tall, tan and terrific."

Booker laughed, and as the event ended Drake's "Started from the Bottom" began to play.

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.

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