U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and 2020 presidential candidate, spoke in Simpsonville on Friday, March 1. He has made a point early in his campaign to go beyond South Carolina's biggest cities. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

SIMPSONVILLE — Shakeila James wanted to know about U.S. Sen. Cory Booker's environmental policies and how he will address what she sees as disproportionate impact of hazardous waste on low-income, minority communities.

The 40-year-old Simpsonville resident came away "very pleased" with Booker's answer, which included touting his own bill to emphasize environmental justice in permitting-decisions and improving infrastructure so that lead never enters water systems.

But as James considers who she'll vote for in next year's hotly contested Democratic presidential primary, what particularly stood out about Booker was the fact the New Jersey Democrat was even there Friday afternoon at Reedy Fork Baptist Church in her Upstate hometown.

"A lot of times the little rural towns get counted out but we have some very legitimate concerns," James said. "So when people take the time out to come to our small town and talk to us and actually answer our questions, not just do a speech, that means a lot to me."

John Mack Sr., a retired veteran who drove down from Taylors, said he "really appreciated" that Booker held the event outside of a downtown city.

“That makes a huge difference for me," Mack said. "It shows that he cares about everybody.”

In a crowded 2020 Democratic primary field of well-known candidates who share many progressive policy views, how and where they choose to campaign in the crucial early primary state of South Carolina could prove to be a key difference-maker. 

By all accounts, Booker's strategy of creating a presence in lesser-populated cities and towns earlier is fully intentional. Asked by The Post and Courier what role rural South Carolina will play in his campaign, Booker said it is "extraordinarily important" for him to get beyond "the well-trodden path."

"I want to talk to voters everywhere from all backgrounds, from all different geographic parts of this state," Booker said in Simpsonville. "And I'm going to work very hard doing it and spend a lot of long days, long nights traveling the highways and byways of South Carolina. That's how you earn votes."

Several candidates have said they intend to get to as many South Carolina communities as possible in the next year. But Booker is one of the only contenders who has already started doing it with such notable frequency in the earliest weeks of his campaign.

Clay Middleton, a senior political adviser for Booker based in South Carolina, said his experience working with U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, played a key role in helping him to understand the importance of rural and suburban communities to Democratic politics in the Palmetto State.

Middleton spent years traveling Clyburn's 6th Congressional District, which stretches from Columbia to the Pee Dee and all the way down to parts of Beaufort County, with wide swaths of rural areas in between. As part of a 46-county strategy, he said every trip Booker makes to the state will include at least one stop outside the biggest cities.

"We don't want to play catch up later when it comes to going to those areas," Middleton said. "We want to start out on the right foot because you only get one chance to make a first impression, and then that will continue throughout the campaign."

Booker's first visit to the state after launching his campaign featured stops in Winnsboro, Sumter and Denmark. While his most recent trip this weekend included a downtown Charleston event, he also drove up to Summerville afterwards after having already hit Simpsonville on Friday.

Middleton's mentor agrees — and he suspected his relationship with Booker's hires, including Middleton and Booker's state director Christale Spain, may have something to do with it.

"It's a smart thing to do," Clyburn told The Post and Courier in Summerville on Saturday. "I don't think that a media campaign is as effective in primaries as they are in generals, especially when it comes to presidentials. This is going to be such a big field... so I think the person-to-person stuff is going to be very important."

Sign up for updates!

Get the latest political news from The Post and Courier in your inbox.

Booker's early move to less populated cities and towns has not led to less populated events. The candidate drew more than 400 attendees in Simpsonville on Friday. More than 200 showed up to rural health town hall at Fairfield High School in Winnsboro on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Community leaders in Winnsboro on stage with Booker included Tangee Jacobs, a Fairfield County real estate agent who chairs the S.C. Democratic Party's Rural Caucus. 

"Rural voters need to be motivated," Jacobs said. "And when they come into our communities, that's a really important way of showing they care and are listening."

One of Booker's Senate colleagues, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, also ventured out beyond the typical spots in his first visit to the state this weekend as he continues to explore a potential presidential bid.

The Ohio Democrat went out to Hartsville on Saturday morning for a Darlington County Women's History Month luncheon, drawing praise from influential state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, who said it "shows he recognizes the importance of rural South Carolina."

Booker and Brown linked up for their last campaign stop in Summerville on Saturday afternoon for a Dorchester County Democratic Party oyster roast.

The appearance of potentially two presidential candidates, plus Clyburn and U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, led to the biggest turnout for an event the local party there has had in years. Dorchester County Democratic Party chairman Sean Wilson said coming to a historically conservative suburb like that can leave a lasting impression for the Democrats who live there.

“People interact with you and they want to feel the candidate," Wilson said. "So if you are a candidate, you have to touch the people and be accessible."

Andy Shain contributed to this report. 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.