COLUMBIA — South Carolina Democrats have a message for their standard bearer and early primary favorite Hillary Clinton: we want some love.
Among the chattering classes, there are few who would say the behemoth that is the Clinton operation faces much of a real challenge so far. Lesser-known potential challengers such as former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley or Vermont independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, among others, are still on the fence about running and face fundraising and other stiff challenges.
As South Carolina Democrats gathered for their annual convention Saturday — without Clinton but with several other potential candidates and surrogates — there was much to lament. The party, like others around the South, received a shellacking in last year’s mid-term election and face dwindling numbers in the Statehouse. But the state’s first-in-the-South primary is a bright spot that puts the state’s devoted Democrats in a position to potentially play king-maker for the highest office in the land.
Among at least some delegates who gathered, Clinton was seen as an inevitable if flawed candidate months before the February primary.
Rudy Williams, a convention attendee from Columbia who was wearing a seersucker suit and speaking loudly over the din of music at Friday night’s fish fry hosted by Rep. Jim Clyburn, said he believes Clinton can beat any Republican. But he said there are drawbacks.
“There’s always drama, drama, drama with the Clintons,” Williams said. “All the baggage. But it is what it is. She’ll get the votes.”
Other potential candidates hope, of course, that could mean an opening for them. O’Malley, perhaps the best known of the potential candidates who has long flirted with a run, delivered a speech to delegates that hit on several progressive cornerstones, including sustained funding for education, the minimum wage and improving childhood hunger.
He said he would build on President Barack Obama’s economic success to ensure a stronger middle class.
O’Malley helped Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen last year raise money and campaign around the state. “People here (in South Carolina) want the same thing we all want,” O’Malley told reporters after his speech. “When we work hard, we want to be able to get ahead. There’s this deep pessimism as people look over the horizon and wonder what it’s going to be like if wages don’t go (up). That’s very acute here in South Carolina. They know they’re working harder ... other things are going up but not their paycheck.”
Asked about differences with Clinton, O’Malley noted that she wasn’t at the convention. “I guess it was different in every way,” he said.
Boyd Brown, a former Democratic S.C. House member who attended the convention and is supporting O’Malley, said he doesn’t want to see another Clinton in the White House. “O’Malley is going to be in people’s living rooms, not just for a photo op,” Brown said, dismissing Clinton’s early efforts to be approachable. “The Clintons were perfect in 1992. But this isn’t 1992. We’ve crossed that bridge.”
He said he’s skeptical Clinton has learned from her 2008 mistakes. “The Clintons have always been known to repeat their mistakes,” Brown said.
Clinton campaign officials and surrogates say the former senator and Secretary of State is ready for the tough slog in South Carolina and elsewhere. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton supporter and a Hillary Clinton surrogate at the event Saturday, said she has learned her lesson from 2008 when Obama surprisingly won the South Carolina primary.
He said Clinton’s move to meet with smaller groups in Iowa is evidence of what she plans to do in South Carolina. “Small interaction — that is exactly what she needs to be doing,” McAuliffe told reporters. He said she has never forgotten her humble roots and plans to share her story in early primary states and across the country. Clinton also addressed South Carolina delegates through a pre-recorded video, saying she hoped to be their “champion” across the state.
Sheheen, the former gubernatorial candidate, said in an interview that Obama and other national Democrats have “failed” the South for avoiding visits and speaking directly to southern Democrats. “Retail politics still matter,” said Sheheen, who has not yet endorsed anyone. He attributed Obama’s 2008 primary victory in the state to traditional campaigning and an aspirational vision. “He was here, mixing it up,” Sheheen said. “He spoke to people’s desires.”
Bakari Sellers, a well-known Democrat and Clinton supporter, said he would push the Clinton camp to make the right moves. “I think they understand what happens when you take things for granted,” he said.
Some of the party’s most colorful national characters also came to Columbia Convention Center on Saturday. Sanders, the Vermont senator, delivered a fiery speech about inequality in America. “America does not belong to the billionaire class, it belongs to all of us,” Sanders said.
Appearing for potential presidential hopeful Jim Webb, a former Virginia senator, political operative David “Mudcat” Saunders hit on that theme as well.
Webb doesn’t yet know whether he’ll have the funds to mount a successful campaign. “If it’s not Mrs. Clinton, it’s frozen,” Saunders said of campaign money on the Democratic side. “South Carolinians are just plum fed up as well... with money primaries. (It’s) coin operated government. You stick your money in the juke box and out play your song.”
Along with Sen. Sanders, O’Malley and Webb, potential candidate former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee also addressed South Carolina delegates.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.