Clyburn Smith

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, speaks at his annual Fish Fry in Columbia on Friday night, with state Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, in the background. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff 

COLUMBIA — South Carolina's most powerful Democratic politician, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, threw his support behind state Rep. James Smith for governor over two other primary candidates Saturday at the state party convention. 

"James Smith has shown us that the best way to tell what a man will do is to look at what he has done," Clyburn said. "When you look at his record in the Legislature, it's a record that all of us can be proud of." 

The endorsement from Clyburn does not come as much of a surprise. Given Smith's 22 years in the Statehouse and Clyburn's 25 years in Congress, the pair from Columbia have known each other for a long time. Last month, Smith toured parts of Clyburn's district alongside the congressman.

But Clyburn held off on declaring his support for Smith until standing before hundreds of party loyalists Saturday in Columbia, sending a strong message that the state's top Democratic powerbrokers are solidifying behind the longtime state lawmaker.

Pulling out all the stops, Smith entered the convention with a full marching band from Benedict College and an introductory video from former Vice President Joe Biden.

"I've known him for a long time, and I believe he has the character, the courage and the integrity to make a great governor for South Carolina," Biden said. "And he can win."

Despite Smith's strong fundraising numbers and widespread support from the Democratic establishment, recent polls have shown the three-way Democratic primary could be a closer race than many observers expected.

One poll conducted by Michigan-based firm Target-Insyght this month put Smith in a dead heat with Charleston businessman Phil Noble and just six points ahead of Florence antitrust attorney Marguerite Willis. But about a quarter of Democratic voters said they were still undecided about the race.

Clyburn said his daughter Angela, who has been working on Smith's campaign, suggested he should publicize his endorsement at the convention to maximize the impact. Clyburn said he has long liked Smith, particularly his shift to a combat post after 9/11. 

"I don't think that there's anybody in this race on either side that is more committed to public service than James Smith," Clyburn said.

Five Republicans are seeking the GOP nomination: Gov. Henry McMaster, former health agency director Catherine Templeton, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, Greenville businessman John Warren and former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.