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Clyburn insists he is still deciding among 3 candidates for SC 2020 primary endorsement

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U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina's longtime most influential Democrat, said Sunday he is still deciding between up to three presidential candidates as he prepares to make an endorsement this week ahead of the state's 2020 primary.

In an interview with The Post and Courier, the Columbia Democrat spoke particularly positively about U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden.

He also warned that Democrats risk a landslide defeat like if they nominate someone who is too extreme or inexperienced, referencing current 2020 Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders and billionaire Tom Steyer, who has campaigned hard in South Carolina.

With both Sanders and Steyer, Clyburn expressed concern that they would have the same impact on the Democratic Party as George McGovern, whose progressive 1972 candidacy divided the party and led to a blowout loss against Richard Nixon.

"I don't see a whole lot of 2016 in this election," Clyburn said. "I see a whole lot of 1972."

Clyburn also is taking a pass on Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor, who made some splashes in other early-voting states. 

Clyburn's long-anticipated endorsement, set to be announced Wednesday, could provide a major boost to the candidate he chooses. The third-ranking U.S. House member holds tremendous influence among South Carolina Democrats, one in five of whom say they remain undecided ahead of the state's Feb. 29 primary, according to a poll released last week.

He also is Congress' highest-ranking African American from a state where more than 60 percent of Democratic voters are black.

On Klobuchar, Clyburn praised the Minnesota senator for her legislative track record, noting she has sponsored or cosponsored more bills that became law in recent years than most of her colleagues.

"She's a very productive person," Clyburn said. "She's got a record in these communities that she has represented in Minnesota to be proud of."

Clyburn noted he has worked closely with Warren on reducing student debt.

He teamed up with the Massachusetts senator to introduce the "Student Loan Debt Relief Act," which would cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt for anyone who makes $100,000 or less. The two lawmakers held a town hall together about the issue at S.C. State University, Clyburn's alma mater, in October.

As for Biden, Clyburn said that he values the former vice president's experience in the Senate and working alongside President Barack Obama.

"I believe our experiences shape who and what we are," Clyburn said. "And I think he has a background and experiences that bode well."

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Politico reported Sunday that Clyburn will endorse Biden, citing anonymous sources. Despite that report, Clyburn insisted any assumption that he has already picked Biden given their longstanding relationship would be wrong. He said he would be talking to three unnamed candidates Sunday night. 

Clyburn said he had heard some complaints from friends about a Buttigieg ad that features images of the congressman. Clyburn's grandson, Walter Clyburn Reed, is working for Buttigieg's campaign.

But Clyburn said he does not plan to endorse Buttigieg. Though he did not cite a reason for not backing the race's youngest candidate, he said had no problem with the Buttigieg campaign using his image and that his grandson had cleared it with him before it went up on air.

"I would love for whoever I endorse — and it will not be Buttigieg — but whoever I endorse, I would love for them to win," Clyburn said. "But I'm certainly never going to throw cold water on my grandson's dreams."

After Sanders notched another win Saturday in the Nevada caucuses, Clyburn said he fears that the Vermont senator would damage down-ballot prospects for other Democrats, including South Carolina's Jaime Harrison in his race against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

"I do believe that it would be problematic with Bernie Sanders and his so-called democratic socialist label," Clyburn said. "A lot of people, not just in South Carolina, but in this part of the country would have a problem with that label."

South Carolina's other Democratic congressman, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham of Charleston, recently spoke out more forcefully against Sanders, telling The Post and Courier that "South Carolinians don't want socialism" and predicting Sanders would not be the nominee.

As Steyer rises in South Carolina polls, Clyburn attributed the California businessman's ascent to nothing more than the millions of dollars he has spent on advertising in South Carolina.

He also pushed back on Steyer's claims on the campaign trail that his "Need to Impeach" effort was instrumental in prompting House Democrats to vote to impeach Trump. At one point in 2018, Steyer targeted Clyburn's district to rally support for impeachment before Clyburn came around to it.

"I'm not sure he was pushing impeachment as much as he was pushing his name," Clyburn said, adding that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deserves the credit for the impeachment vote.

At one point in the race, Clyburn said he had determined he would not make an endorsement at all. But he received continued pressure both from campaigns and members of the community to weigh in with his thoughts.

Just recently, Clyburn said he was at Bertha's Kitchen in North Charleston when several voters pressed him on who he was supporting, telling him they wanted his guidance and were going to do whatever he does.

"So I think I would be dishonest and shirking my responsibility if I did not lay out who I'm going to vote for," Clyburn said.

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.

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