COLUMBIA — Drum lines and boisterous cheering sections. Sign wavers and flying blimps. Hundreds of news outlets from around the world and 22 contenders vying for the nation’s highest office.

Exactly 500 days out from the 2020 general election — and 252 days away from South Carolina’s Feb. 29 presidential primary — Columbia played host Saturday to a S.C. Democratic Party Convention unlike any in recent memory.

The frenetic scene offered candidates an opportunity to pitch themselves in seven-minute spurts throughout the day. Meanwhile, staffers and volunteers darted through the crowd seeking to enlist new supporters

A fiery California Sen. Kamala Harris kickstarted the day by vowing to “prosecute the case” against President Donald Trump. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren inspired chants of her name when she called for “big structural change in America.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders renewed his 2016 rallying cry to confront the nation’s most powerful corporations, and he kept the celebratory vibes going even after the convention was over with an afterparty for supporters.

A mid-afternoon lull in the proceedings abruptly ended when hordes of screaming Beto O’Rourke supporters descended the convention center’s escalators, more closely resembling a gang of rowdy sports fans than a group of political supporters.

With the crowd growing weary at the end of a long day, the final speakers, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Vice President Joe Biden, nonetheless brought them to their feet.

But perhaps the biggest winners of the day were South Carolina Democrats — a group that has yearned for years to reel in the kind of attention and resources afforded to historically blue or battleground states.

Some of the loudest roars of approval came when several candidates promised to continue visiting South Carolina even after the primary is over — addressing a long-held gripe from Democrats in the state that they are often overlooked until their primary votes are needed.

“I’m going to be one of these folks who campaigns here in the primary and comes back in the general to and helps to build a blue state, which I know the makings of are here,” Booker told The Post and Courier.

S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said in his 21 years in office, he had never seen the level of exuberance on display at the party’s annual convention weekend, punctuated with U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn's Fish Fry on Friday night that drew 7,000 and featured almost all of the 2020 candidates on stage for the first time.

The excitement and party-like atmosphere around the Fish Fry, which has become a staple for Democrats in the early-voting state that's the first test to win African American voters, was a fitting set up for the record attendance at the convention.

“The fact that people across the spectrum are not only willing to come out and vote in the past election but come out to a Democratic convention to show their enthusiasm is just beyond the reach of what anybody thought was possible a couple years ago,” said Rutherford, a Columbia attorney.

First timers

Many of the more than 2,500 delegates and guests reported attending a convention for the first time.

“I decided I can’t just sit around and be angry,” said Kim Ford, a Columbia teacher. “I needed to get involved.”

Ford volunteered as a precinct captain with the Richland County Democratic Party where she has helped with voter registration and she became a party delegate.

Ford likes Warren because she believes the senator has the most concrete and clear plans in the field. Still like other delegates, Ford spent eight hours Saturday listening to other candidates for a message that connected.

Carolyn Addison, a 70-year-old retired school counselor from Chesterfield County, took notes from all the candidates’ speeches on a small pad resting on her lap.

“If we could combine everybody into one person, that would be ideal,” said Addison, an alternate delegate who was attending her first convention because she wants Trump out of office. “We just need somebody sincere.”

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood’s political arm held a daylong forum where candidates could walk across the street from the convention to show their support for abortion rights.

South Carolina is close to joining other states in passing a bill that could ban all abortions after a fetal heart beat is detected.

One by one, the 2020 hopefuls took questions from women who were victims of sexual assault or had difficulties in receiving safe abortions. The crowd was friendly, but Warren received the biggest cheers while Biden fended off criticism that he was not a staunch abortion rights defender.

'Alive and well'

The critical challenge for Democrats will be sustaining this level of energy beyond the Feb. 29 primary.

Republicans, who have not lost a statewide race in South Carolina in more than a decade, expressed little concern that fleeting presidential attention would change the state’s conservative fundamentals.

“While (the Democratic presidential candidates) hash out who’s moving furthest to the left this weekend, South Carolinians will be quick to reject their agenda that diminishes the quality of their health care, cuts jobs, and depletes their bank accounts,” said RNC spokesman Joe Jackson.

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Still, S.C. Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson argued it should at least put the majority party on notice.

“It shows the Democratic Party in this state is alive and well, that we have a renewed mission and a renewed mission for where we want to go and what we want to do,” Robertson said.

The presidential attention has given the party a financial boost, too. The party’s treasurer beamed as she told delegates that, in just the first half of 2019, the party managed to wipe out all of its $186,000 debt.

But Carol Fowler, who led the party during the competitive 2008 primary, said the most significant benefits extend beyond dollars and cents.

“Money is always helpful,” Fowler said. “But going forward, to have the enthusiasm and the people willing to do all the work that needs to be done between now and November 2020, you can’t ask for much more than this.”

Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard said after finishing her speech at the convention Saturday that she was inspired by the energy and excitement of the large crowds during the weekend.

She took the response from the Fish Fry and convention as a sign that S.C. Democratic voters are poised to head to the polls in record numbers in 2020.

“I believe this energy will continue, and I think it absolutely will have an impact in the presidential election but it also will have an impact in South Carolina where you’ve got great candidates running for Congress and you’ve got Jaime Harrison running for the U.S. Senate,” Gabbard told reporters. “These are the kinds of things that can make an impact for a very long time.”

While the primary has become increasingly contentious in recent weeks, with candidates taking more direct aim at each other than they had before, the packed field was part of what drew such an unprecedented level of interest.

“I think that’s what makes a competitive primary a really good thing, because it can activate even more people,” Booker said. “I think the Democrats in general are committed to making sure that Donald Trump is a one-term president and that is an energizing cause.”

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a longtime Democratic legislator from Orangeburg, said the convention weekend alone will not be nearly enough to spur the party to new heights.

“We have got to marry this kind of event with message, mobilization and organization, and of course the running theme throughout all of that is recruitment of quality candidates,” Cobb-Hunter said. “So we can’t look at this show and say, ‘Wow, we’ve arrived.’ There is still much work to do.”

Andy Shain contributed to this story.

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.

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