FLORENCE — When LaTonya Gamble moved to Newark, N.J., blighted streets were lined with shuttered stores and police morale was so low that they would offer little assistance when she called to report people breaking into her car.

"It was kind of depressing," Gamble said. "It looked like an abandoned city."

But during return visits to Newark, Gamble said she was struck by how much the city has changed for the better — a transformation she attributes in large part to its now-former mayor, Cory Booker.

"I didn't think it could be done," Gamble said. "I just really thought we could write that city off. When (Booker) became mayor, I didn't think he would be able to get people together. So I'm pleasantly surprised by how that city has turned around."

Now the president of the Eastside Community Development Corporation in Charleston, Gamble is among those backing Booker's latest underdog political bid in a state that will be pivotal to his chances of success: South Carolina.

The New Jersey senator has held more events in the Palmetto State than any other candidate, beginning before he even launched his campaign by visiting before last year's midterm elections and then attending January's King Day at the Dome in Columbia.

Clips from Booker's appearance at King Day at the Dome featured prominently in his campaign announcement video, an indication of the state's critical role in his campaign.

He hired two of South Carolina's most coveted Democratic operatives in state Director Christale Spain, a former executive director of the S.C. Democratic Party, and Senior Political Adviser Clay Middleton, who led Hillary Clinton's 2016 primary operation in the state.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Middleton placed the importance of South Carolina to Booker's campaign at a 12. 

Christale Spain

Cory Booker's South Carolina State Director Christale Spain works in her office at headquarters in Columbia. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

Despite all that, Booker — like so many other candidates in the crowded Democratic primary field — has still struggled to break through or pose any serious threat yet to the state's frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Even just making it to the South Carolina primary appears to be far from a sure thing for Booker at this point. In a memo to staff and supporters Saturday, Booker's campaign manager said that if they don't raise $1.7 million in the next 10 days, he does not see a "legitimate path forward" in the race.

But Booker is holding out hope that the groundwork he's laid will eventually translate into more support as an increasing number of voters tune into the race.

"I feel good about the fundamentals of our campaign and how our message is resonating here," Booker said in a recent interview with The Post and Courier. "I've got several more months until people are voting here, so I've got time to do it and I'm just going to keep working."

'Never forgotten where he came from'

From his earliest visits to South Carolina, Booker has often talked about his status as the only senator living in a low-income, inner-city community.

The line serves as a less-than-subtle way to distinguish himself from the race's other prominent African American candidate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, and to try to establish a personal connection to the black voters who make up a majority of South Carolina's Democratic electorate.

Carolyn Booker (copy)

Cory Booker's mother Carolyn Booker speaks to a group of Democratic women in Columbia on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

"I've watched his political career and he's never forgotten where he came from," said state Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, the first S.C. lawmaker to endorse Booker early in the race. "He's always been very grounded and very deliberate in his decisions to make sure the people he serves are always at the forefront."

The campaign recently opened its headquarters on a prominent street corner near Columbia's two historically black colleges, Benedict College and Allen University.

And they have dispatched his mother, Carolyn, to share a more personal perspective on her son, particularly with groups she may be better positioned to relate to, like older black women.

"He’s lived in a family that has tried to give back in everything we do," Carolyn Booker said. "I think when people see that it’s not just him but that he comes from a history of a family who have always looked at building community as an important facet of their lives, then it shows this is a natural extension for him."

Booker is certainly not the only candidate to have spent substantial time and resources on South Carolina. But the nature of the election calendar helps to explain why the state may play an even more decisive role for him than others.

While several other candidates will have primaries in their home states shortly after South Carolina, providing a prime opportunity to capture delegates and momentum, New Jersey is not scheduled to vote until June 2, making it one of the very last primaries before the Democratic National Convention.

Even before running, Booker worked to build relationships in South Carolina. After meeting Middleton during Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, he called to wish him well when Middleton was deployed overseas with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

"He didn't have to do it, but he did," Middleton said. "I don't think it was, 'I'm running for president and I want Clay to know I'm thinking about him.' It was sincere. It was genuine."

'Nice guy'

Booker's aides and supporters readily admit that his candidacy has not caught on to the level they expected at this stage in the race.

While many of his campaign events in the state draw sizable crowds, most polls of the state's Democratic primary voters have placed Booker in the low single digits.

Part of the struggle has been about overcoming voter perceptions of electability, with many saying they view Biden as the "safe choice" to accomplish their overriding goal: beating Trump.

Sign up for updates!

Get the latest political news from The Post and Courier in your inbox.

Former Charleston County Democratic Party chairman Brady Quirk-Garvan, who endorsed Booker back in March, suggested that voters will eventually come to realize that safe won't be enough.

"For Democrats to win, we need aspiration," Quirk-Garvan said. "I think sometimes when we try and, in our heads, play it safe, we end up with candidates who don't necessarily inspire and so we end up with younger voters, African Americans, Hispanics staying home in larger numbers."

Others question whether Booker's cheerful message of love and unity adequately captures the level of frustration many Democratic voters feel under the Trump administration.

Ray Borders Gray, a Columbia voter deciding between Booker, Biden and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, suggested that one of the qualities she likes about Booker may be the one that's holding him back.

Shayna Wickens

Columbia voter Shayna Wickens, right, watches the third Democratic presidential debate from Cory Booker's South Carolina headquarters on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

"I think some of it may have to do with the fact that he’s a nice guy," said Borders Gray, 56. "He doesn’t command the same kind of attention." 

Booker and his campaign aides often encourage voters to watch a 2005 documentary about his first campaign for Newark mayor, "Street Fight," which depicts his ultimately unsuccessful efforts to take down entrenched incumbent Sharpe James and his political machine.

The suggestion is designed to counter any notion that a Rhodes Scholar with degrees from Stanford, Oxford and Yale can't tough it out in a bare-knuckled political brawl.

"If you think Cory Booker don't know how to fight," Middleton said, "you're wrong."

After a friend of hers became a field organizer for Booker's campaign, Shayna Wickens decided to come out to a debate watch party at the candidate's South Carolina headquarters in Columbia.

She entered undecided and left won over by Booker's performance. But, without that friend, she acknowledged she may have never known much about Booker — a lack of awareness that she believes is contributing to his struggles to gain traction while many voters still haven't tuned into the race.

"A month ago, I'd be that same person," said Wickens, 25. "But now that I took the time to listen, it's a different story. Even if he's getting time on TV, none of my friends watch TV, we've got Hulu accounts. So it's going to have to come by word-of-mouth and people going door to door to spread his message."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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