COLUMBIA — U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand joined hundreds of Saturday morning shoppers at Columbia's Soda City street market, buying craft chocolate bars and a bright pink dog collar while chatting with voters in the early presidential primary state.
A few at the market recognized the Democrat who took over Hillary Clinton's Senate seat on a day where temperatures felt much more like her native New York. Still, several shoppers and vendors asked, "Who is she?" as Gillibrand walked by, a sign that the senator — like many of her counterparts in the ever-growing 2020 Democratic presidential field — needs time on the ground in the Palmetto State.
"With 20 different candidates, I'm still trying to figure it all out," said James Stefanakos, an independent voter who sold Gillibrand the chocolate bars. "I have never really seen all the pictures of the candidates. And when people said who she was, I said, 'I know that name.' "
Like much of her competition, Gillibrand promises to unite the country after Republican President Donald Trump's election while taking on the "powerful interests" in Washington. She has been considered in a second tier of top Democratic White House hopefuls, behind fellow senators Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
In her first visit to South Carolina since announcing her presidential exploratory committee, Gillibrand made sure to meet with some of South Carolina's top Democrats.
A morning after an event at the Columbia home of former Democratic National Chairman Don Fowler, she had breakfast with Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is leading the National Conference of Mayors, and attended a gathering with women leaders hosted by a daughter of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state's most influential Democratic politician.
She also aimed some of her stops at African-American voters who comprise the bulk of the state's Democratic voters. She visited an Urban League awards reception in Greenville and a pair of black church services in North Charleston.
Inside a Columbia restaurant Saturday, Gillibrand told about 25 women leaders about her background of growing up in rural New York and winning a seat in Congress in a Republican-heavy district, hoping to prove show she has likability win the White House
She highlighted how she has worked to get more women elected to Congress while promoting plans to fight health care companies to push for Medicare for all and battle the National Rifle Association to get universal background checks and ban assault rifles.
Gillibrand, who is not taking super PAC money, also backs the newly proposed "green new deal" as an economic driver, universal pre-kindergarten and discounts on college tuition in exchange for performing public service.
But Gillibrand is making the race about beating Trump, saying she will take on the president's "constant hate, division and racism." She talked up being a Democratic alternative for workers who voted for the president in 2016 with plans to push for workers' right to unionize and for women to get equal pay.
"The breach that President Trump has created, I will personally stand in it," Gillibrand said. "I believe that if you have this values-driven message of bringing us together, healing the nation, disrupting the powers that makes this all impossible — the money in politics, the corruption and the greed — and tell all the folks who left behind that 'I've got your back, I will fight for you,' you will bring people together."
Doug Thompson, a professor at the University of South Carolina who chatted with Gillibrand at the street market, said he was glad the New York senator was among the Democrats eyeing a run for the White House because of her focus on fixing income inequality.
But like many South Carolina voters a year away from the presidential primary, Thompson has no favorite: "I'm open at this time."