Clyburn Smith (copy) (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 22 presidential candidates — and national attention. File/Jamie Lovegrove/Staff 

COLUMBIA — Nearly two dozen Democratic presidential candidates, hundreds of national reporters and thousands of Democratic voters are set to descend on Columbia this weekend for South Carolina's most high-profile political weekend of the year.

The festivities get started Friday night with the S.C. Democratic Party's Blue Palmetto fundraising dinner and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn's "World Famous" Fish Fry.

Then on Saturday, the party will hold their all-day convention. Across the street, Planned Parenthood will host a forum with many of the candidates on reproductive healthcare issues.

Here are a few things to keep an eye on over the weekend:

1. The spectacle

Few remember a Clyburn fish fry for anything that was said. The point of it is the scene: High-profile politicians chowing down on a Southern staple, imbibing heavily from the open bar and getting loose on the dance floor while surrounded by the jubilant masses.

Political columnist Roger Simon once described the Columbia congressman's event as "one of those all-too-rare, feel-good evenings in politics." Soak it in. It's not every weekend that all this national attention turns to the Palmetto State.

2. Reactions from party activists

While the candidates won't have long to address the convention crowd, any vocal reactions could give an indication of which contenders are building support in this critical early-voting primary state and, perhaps, which ones are struggling.

The types of people who attend party conventions do not necessarily reflect the state's broader Democratic primary electorate. They're far more engaged in the political process than the average voter.

But they are the types of activists you want on your side — they might volunteer for campaigns and build support in their communities if they get on board. This is an opportunity for candidates to enlist them.

3. S.C. elected officials

While endorsements have been flying from some state lawmakers and other officials, most of the state's highest-profile politicians have stayed on the sidelines and offered to help all the candidates get acquainted with the state.

Listen closely to folks like Clyburn, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham of Charleston and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and you might get a better sense for what they're hoping to see in a nominee.

4. Will anyone swing at Joe Biden?

The former vice president has been the frontrunner from the day he got in the race, particularly in South Carolina, where decades of relationships and his connection to former President Barack Obama have given him a head start.

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But he has come increasingly under fire from his many primary rivals. This week in particular, Biden has elicited criticism for comments about his working relationships with segregationist former senators.

With the convention coming just a few days before the first Democratic primary debates, some candidates may look to land an early blow, either implicitly or explicitly, as they try to chip into his base of support.

5. Blue Palmetto dinner

In any other year, South Carolina drawing the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for a keynote speech would be a headline-grabbing event.

This year, however, the appearance of U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., at Friday night's Blue Palmetto fundraising dinner has naturally been overshadowed by the presidential race.

But, following Cunningham's upset victory in the Lowcountry's 1st Congressional District last year, S.C. Democrats are hoping Bustos' trip means national Democrats will start to give more consideration to helping them out in the historically conservative state. 

Cunningham voted for Bustos for House speaker earlier this year, following through on his campaign promise to choose someone other than Nancy Pelosi. A Midwestern moderate, Bustos has sought to broaden the Democratic brand in attempt to boost the party's standing among rural and working class voters. 

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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