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Tom Steyer tries to convert intrigue into votes ahead of SC's 2020 Democratic primary

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2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer answers a question from Tabitha Strother (right) in Chester on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

ROCK HILL — Like many Democratic voters in South Carolina, Tabitha Strother has seen the many campaign ads for businessman Tom Steyer that have inundated televisions across the Palmetto State in recent months and they have caught her attention.

But as she considers whom to vote for in the "First in the South" primary, an unconvinced Strother wanted Steyer to tell her why she should ditch her first choice of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Steyer responded during a lunchtime stop Monday in Chester that he didn't want to say anything disrespectful about Biden. But, the billionaire former hedge fund manager added, if Democrats want to defeat President Donald Trump, it may require a nominee from outside of the Washington political establishment.

"Trump has had great success against conventional politicians," Steyer said, pointing to Trump's 2016 victories over Democrat Hillary Clinton and several well-known Republican primary challengers. "So, aren't we going to have to come up with something unconventional to beat him?"

In the final few months before South Carolina's Feb. 29 Democratic primary, Steyer has spent millions of dollars and valuable campaign time in the state to rise from a little-known progressive activist to a serious contender with an outside chance to pull off a stunning come-from-behind victory here.

A two-day swing through South Carolina on Sunday and Monday — while most of Steyer's opponents were focused on a last-minute push in New Hampshire ahead of that state's Tuesday primary — underscored the importance that the Palmetto State has taken on for his campaign.

Steyer's long-shot bid struggled to catch fire in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states on the Democratic nominating calendar. He placed in a distant seventh place in Iowa and is not expected to do much better in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

South Carolina, on the other hand, has proven to be a different story.

He's rocketed into the top three in the most recent polls taken of South Carolina Democratic primary voters and appears to be the first candidate to have any success chipping away at Biden's strong support among African American voters, who comprise roughly two-thirds of the state's Democratic electorate.

He's scored endorsements from several black elected officials in South Carolina, in part by emphasizing his support for issues like more funding for historically black colleges and universities, reparations for slavery and combating environmental justice problems that disproportionately impact African American communities.

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The efforts have not come without some controversy.

He came under fire from critics last week for paying one of his endorsers, state Rep. Jerry Govan of Orangeburg, more than $40,000 to serve as an adviser for his campaign. Some voters complain about the deluge of flyers from his campaign that have practically overflowed their mailboxes in recent weeks.

For all the effort, Biden's connections to former President Barack Obama and his extensive relationships in South Carolina make his lead difficult to surmount for any of his rivals.

Chester Mayor Pro Tem Angela Douglas, who got breakfast Monday with Steyer, said her father had compiled a stack of Steyer's mailers and begun calling him "the flyer man." She said he was excited to learn the candidate himself would be appearing in their hometown.

But would he consider voting for him? Douglas shook her head.

"He's a Biden man," Douglas said. "He just loves Obama more than anything."

Even though he was spending the final days before the New Hampshire primary in South Carolina, Steyer chose not to take an opportunity to lower expectations for his performance in the Granite State.

"I'm hoping we're going to get momentum out of New Hampshire," he told reporters when asked whether his decision to leave that state indicated that he did not expect a strong result there.

Still, with just hours before New Hampshire voters headed to the polls, Steyer spent his Monday night about 900 miles away in a Rock Hill church trying to convince more South Carolinians to give an unconventional candidate a shot.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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