COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Democratic presidential contest has moved to South Carolina, where voters began casting their ballots Saturday in a primary that serves as two starkly different milestones for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Both are girding for a long primary fight that seemed far-fetched only a few months ago.
Clinton is looking to her expected victory here to prove her strong support among African American voters — and to cement her status as the presumptive front-runner heading toward Super Tuesday three days later, when six of 11 Democratic contests will take place in Southern states with large populations of black voters.
On Saturday morning, she left South Carolina for a rally in Birmingham, Ala., but she will return to Columbia later in the day as polls close. Meanwhile, her surrogates in the South Carolina, including Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state’s highest-ranking Democrat, plan to fan out to polling locations across the state.
Sanders spent much of the past week campaigning in other states — and attacking Clinton on an array of issues with new gusto. On Saturday morning, he flew to Texas, one of the delegate-rich Super Tuesday states, with planned stops in Austin and Dallas. And later in the day, he will be at a rally in Rochester, Minn., another Tuesday ballot.
He is also looking to contests that come after Tuesday, where he has more chance of winning — and a chance, he says, to hang onto the momentum and enthusiasm that his strong liberal message has generated in this unusual election year.
In an interview this week, Sanders acknowledged that South Carolina is a “hard state for us, no ifs, buts and maybes.”
“She has names of many tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who supported her. You start off with that, you have those votes in the bank, and you go on,” Sanders said.
“You know what? I started off without one person voting for us. We have to earn every bloody vote, and that’s hard stuff. Hillary Clinton has very strong roots in the African American community. We have had to build those roots.”
Clinton began a barnstorming tour of South Carolina on Tuesday. She and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, crisscrossed the state on separate itineraries, hitting a total of about a dozen events over three days, speaking to predominantly African American audiences of a few hundred in cities and small towns. Each drew on decades of experience with the powerful church- and civic-based black voting turnout machine.
Although neither Clinton mentioned Sanders much, the nature of the events and the supporters who attended them illustrated how hard it will be for the socialist senator from Vermont to break a bond with black voters forged first by Bill Clinton.
“There are a lot of barriers, aren’t there?” Hillary Clinton said to nodding heads in tiny Kingstree, S.C.
In Florence on Thursday, W.B. Wilson, a member of the local county council, shook his head when asked about Sanders.
“I am not familiar with him at all,” Wilson said.
Joyce T. Marshall was shut out of the Florence event when the crowd grew too large. Along with about 50 others, she shivered in a chilly wind outdoors to hear Hillary Clinton on a speaker.
“Hillary has done a lot for us, and her husband has done a lot for us,” Marshall said.
Sanders insisted that he has not written off South Carolina, despite expectations that he will lose by double digits in a red state where black voters are likely to make up a majority of the electorate in the Democratic contest Saturday.
But after a news conference Wednesday morning in this capital city, Sanders left South Carolina for a 48-hour whirlwind through Missouri, Oklahoma, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota. He returned Friday afternoon for a final push before voting begins at 7 a.m. Saturday.
Sanders drew large, enthusiastic crowds along the way, including close to 9,000 in Tulsa, more than 7,100 in Kansas City, Mo., about 3,600 in a suburb of Cleveland and more than 6,500 in Chicago.
Sanders bristled when asked this week whether his travel schedule was a de facto acknowledgment that he cannot win here.
“No, no, no, no, no,” he said, as two African American state lawmakers who joined him at a news conference shook their heads.
“We are fighting here in South Carolina as hard as we can,” he said, adding that Clinton just spent two days in California raising money. “I mean, she is not writing off the state.”
During her tour, Clinton billed herself as a unifier who would address the problems of South Carolina’s impoverished and undereducated. She name-checked local issues, trashed the Republican governor and wrapped her arms around locally prominent African American leaders.
A black pastor welcomed her to his church. A black woman in braids warmed up the crowd at an appearance to which Clinton arrived very late. The black mayor of Columbia introduced her at an event Wednesday and starred in an evocative television advertisement for Clinton, done in the form of a letter to his young daughters.
Five black women from around the country who lost children to gun violence or in police custody came to South Carolina to campaign for Clinton this week. The mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and others sat alongside her on Tuesday for an emotional discussion of gun control and police misconduct.
Jaime Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said Sanders began legwork in the state in 2014 and attended a state party function last year that Clinton did not.
“He’s trying to figure out ways to break into, sort of, your middle-aged, senior citizen, African American community,” which is the mainstay of Clinton’s support, Harrison said.
“His challenge is nobody knew who Bernie Sanders was,” Harrison said. “And second, once he sufficiently has name ID, convincing people he’s the best person to carry water for them.”
Even Sanders’s biggest boosters in South Carolina are not defining a win as beating Clinton.
Justin T. Bamberg, one of six black South Carolina state lawmakers supporting Sanders, said that a loss by 10 to 15 percentage points would send a message that Sanders was competitive.
“There is one candidate on the Democratic side who has to win here: Hillary Clinton,” Bamberg said. “Bernie Sanders just has to do fairly decent here.”
Bamberg, who also serves as the attorney for the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed black motorist who was shot to death last April by a North Charleston, S.C., police officer, said Clinton had a huge head start in the state.
“Bill Clinton had a certain swag that was attractive to voters,” Bamberg said.
Scott’s family is not among those campaigning for Clinton.
Sanders’s boosters have been running full throttle even as the candidate divides his time among other key states, Bamberg said. He pointed to a large phone-banking effort Thursday afternoon featuring Killer Mike, an Atlanta rapper who has been a frequent Sanders surrogate.
Other Sanders backers active in the state in recent days include Benjamin T. Jealous, the former NAACP head, who accompanied him to an African American church in Columbia earlier in the week.
Several of Sanders’s events this week, including those in other states, were aimed at least in part at the black vote.
On Thursday, Sanders visited Flint, Mich., the majority African American city suffering from a contaminated water crisis. Clinton visited Flint this month, just before Sanders beat her soundly in the New Hampshire primary.
Sanders said that he has the potential to do better with African American voters elsewhere as the campaign continues and he becomes better known. At an appearance Thursday in a packed basketball arena at the historically black Chicago State University, he was introduced by a series of African American supporters, including Jonathan Jackson, son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
At the rally, and at another Friday morning in Hibbing, Minn., Sanders attacked Clinton on several fronts, including her acceptance of campaign contributions and speaking fees from Wall Street interests. He also criticized her support, as first lady and as a New York senator, of welfare reform, free trade, an anti-gay rights bill and the Iraq War — all measures he opposed in Congress.
“I don’t go to Wall Street in the morning and talk to the unions in the afternoon,” he said in Hibbing.
The unusual broadside was part of an a stepped-up effort in the wake of Sanders’s loss to Clinton in Nevada to draw distinctions more aggressively.
Several of Sanders’s destinations this week were states with contests on Tuesday. Some hold contests later in March. Sanders’s advisers are hoping to pull off five victories in the 11 states that hold primaries or caucuses on Tuesday, all of them with relatively small black populations.