Clyburn Smith (copy)

Last year, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn's "World Famous Fish Fry" featured Democratic candidates running for statewide office in South Carolina. This year, it will draw a massive field of 21 presidential candidates — and national attention. File/Jamie Lovegrove/Staff 

COLUMBIA — Brace yourselves: The 2020 candidates are coming.

South Carolina's status as a crucial early-voting presidential primary state has made it a popular destination for Democratic hopefuls for months now. But over the next seven days, the activity here is set to ramp up to an unprecedented level, with a series of high-profile events primed to attract national attention.

The jam-packed week peaks June 22 with the S.C. Democratic Party's annual convention where a whopping 21 candidates are confirmed to attend, making it potentially the largest single gathering of active presidential contenders in American history.

Candidates will be given seven minutes each to address a crowd in Columbia that's expected to top 2,000 delegates and guests. The party has partnered with MSNBC for the event, and the cable news network is expected to broadcast live from the convention hall throughout the day.

S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson said the weekend will be "a massive undertaking," but he's not surprised it has drawn so much interest from voters, candidates and the media alike.

"It’s an opportunity for presidential candidates to come in and touch a significant bloc of those who will make a decision on who will be our nominee," Robertson said. "I don’t think it’s just a positive step for the Democratic Party in South Carolina, I think it’s a positive for the people of the entire state." 

The night before the convention, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the party's congressional campaign committee, will deliver the keynote address at the party's annual Blue Palmetto dinner.

More than 1,000 people are expected to attend the dinner, which sold out so quickly that the party has set up an additional room where guests will be able to watch a livestream of the event for a reduced price.

After the dinner, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn's "World Famous Fish Fry" is set to live up to its lofty name, attracting news networks from around the globe hoping to get insight into how the state's longtime Democratic kingmaker views the race and see the candidates in a more loose, jovial atmosphere.

Clyburn began hosting the annual fish fry nearly 30 years ago as way to thank supporters who can't afford to attend the party's annual fundraising dinner. Despite minimal advertising, it has swelled by word of mouth over the years to become one of the foremost events on the South Carolina political calendar — particularly in the months before presidential primaries.

The events comes just days before the first Democratic presidential debates in Miami, giving candidates one last opportunity to hone their messages before facing off against each other.

Interspersed with the official Democratic Party events are several independent forums.

In Charleston on Saturday, the Black Economic Alliance will host a forum at the Charleston Music Hall featuring four candidates: U.S. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas.

Then, during the convention June 22, Planned Parenthood Action Fund will hold a forum on the University of South Carolina campus with at least 11 candidates to discuss reproductive health care issues.

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Presidential candidates aren't the only Democratic officials gathering in the Palmetto State next week. Third Way, a centrist Democratic think-tank and advocacy group, will host a strategy session in Charleston on Monday and Tuesday.

Though the session deliberately does not include candidates, it will feature some 250 top Democratic Party influencers — including elected officials, consultants, strategists and pollsters — urging the party to avoid veering too far to the left.

Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, said the choice of Charleston for the group's 2019 session was no coincidence.

"We wanted to be in one of the first four states, but our view is that South Carolina in some ways is vitally important in its own right because it's the first primary that involves a diverse electorate," Bennett said.

With the convention weekend falling just over eight months before South Carolina's Feb. 29 primary, Robertson compared the many options facing voters to the Golden Corral restaurant in his hometown of Anderson.

“You can go in and get a filet, you can get a sirloin, you can get the bacon and eggs and grits, you can get a little bit of everything you want," Robertson said. "That’s what this Democratic primary is presenting to the American people. There’s a smorgasbord of candidates and visions for leading America. This is our opportunity to hear from those candidates up close and personal.”

Schedule of events:

  • Saturday: Black Economic Alliance forum at the Charleston Music Hall
  • Monday and Tuesday: Third Way strategy session at the Gaillard Center in Charleston
  • Friday: S.C. Democratic Party Blue Palmetto dinner at the Columbia Convention Center
  • Friday: Jim Clyburn's World Famous Fish Fry at Coble Plaza in Columbia
  • June 22: S.C. Democratic Party Convention at the Columbia Convention Center
  • June 22: Planned Parenthood Action Fund forum at the University of South Carolina

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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