Battle scars from 2008 bitter primary fight have largely healed
Loss in South Carolina to Obama was a stinging rebuke for the Clintons
Most think that another Obama is unlikely to emerge as a challenger
To hear some tell it, the 2008 South Carolina primary clash between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was a few steps away from a full-blown race riot.
“It was unbelievable down here in 2007 and 2008,” said Bridget Tripp, a Democratic organizer from Lexington who supported Obama in that year’s primary. “Bill Clinton was going through downtown Columbia calling Barack Obama a racist.”
It never got that bad, of course. But in the runup to the contest and in its aftermath, the Clinton campaign scrambled to explain away comments that rankled the black community: Hillary Clinton seeming to downplay Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in passing the Civil Rights Act, Bill Clinton’s biting characterization of Obama’s campaign as “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen” and a range of remarks from Clinton allies that seemed to belittle Obama’s achievements.
Bill Clinton’s remarks in particular went over so poorly that South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, then the state’s highest-ranking African-American in Congress, went on national television and told the former president to “chill.” The morning after Obama’s crushing 28-point victory, Bill Clinton waved it off in glib terms, comparing Obama to Jesse Jackson, just another black candidate with black support.
The loss was a stinging defeat for the Clintons, a Southern power couple who viewed their longstanding friendships in the African-American community as crucial bulwark against any Democratic foe.
But African-American voters were suddenly flocking to Obama in the wake of his Iowa caucus victory, a win that made the prospect of electing the nation’s first black president suddenly seem real. Black voters made up more than half of the South Carolina primary electorate, and Obama won almost 80% of them.
The Democratic primary fight went on for months, but Obama banked a decisive delegate lead, and Clinton never recovered from the loss.
Clinton supporters have fresh bounce in their step
Six years on, as Clinton considers a second presidential bid, the battle scars here have largely healed over.
“I love Hillary Clinton,” said Clyburn. “She has made a tremendous contribution to the political order in this country. I have three daughters, and two of my three grandchildren are girls. So I am very partial to women who run for office.”
Clinton supporters in South Carolina who were slump-shouldered in the wake of her loss now have a fresh bounce in their steps.
“I have to be a little careful, but at this point, if she announces, it’s going to be her nomination,” said Don Fowler, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the Clinton White House years.
Leading African-American legislators who backed Obama are all but endorsing Clinton, even though she has not even said whether she plans to run. And several of Obama’s well-regarded field marshals from 2008 have been toiling in the state since last fall on behalf of “Ready For Hillary,” an independent group that is trying to build steam for a potential Clinton bid.
“Without a doubt, there is definitely a warming to her,” said Anton Gunn, a hulking former college football lineman who was Obama’s political director in 2008 and later served in his administration.
“When she made the decision to be secretary of state and did an admirable job, being completely loyal to the goals and objectives that the president laid out, she made a lot of supporters. She was soldier and a part of the team just like we were.”
Like all of the early caucus primary states that will help determine the Democratic nominee in 2016, South Carolina is no sure bet for Clinton if she decides to run. Polls show her with a wide lead over hypothetical opponents, but surveys also suggest the base of her party is drifting leftward, away from the centrism that defines Clintonian politics. A fresh set of issues or another dynamic candidate might emerge before the primary votes of early 2016.
But every Democrat here agrees: South Carolina is once again Clinton’s to lose.
Other than Vice President Joe Biden, the scarcity of heavyweight opponents on the horizon is striking, especially compared to 2006, when a passel of big name Democrats were making regular trips here to campaign for midterm candidates and consult with potential supporters.
Emergence of another African-American candidate could hurt Clinton
“She just dominates the whole Democratic Party presidential process,” Fowler said.
What might damage Clinton, a range of South Carolina Democrats said, would be the sudden emergence of another African-American candidate in a primary where the percentage of black voters could be as high as 60%.
“Unless there is another Barack Obama out there, I don’t see the same thing happening again,” said Darrell Jackson, a pastor and longtime state senator who was one of Clinton’s leading surrogates in the state in 2008.
For Tripp, now working Ready for Hillary, the prospect of making history by helping elect the country’s first woman president has a unique appeal. “There will never be another first black president,” she said.
Former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, a chairman of Obama’s campaign in 2008, pointed to “a clear hunger among Democrats here for a women to be the nominee.”
“She is well-positioned,” Hodges said of Clinton. “There is no obvious alternative in the Democratic Party. I just don’t see anyone emerging right now who would cause her problems if she runs.”
Hodges mused that a challenger on her progressive flank could give Clinton a headache, even in South Carolina. The Democratic ranks have become more liberal over the years, he said, with Southern conservatives leaving the party and a continuing influx of out-of-staters, known locally as “come-heres,” who aren’t beholden to Southern orthodoxy.
If the political terrain here has shifted since 2008, it should not come as a surprise to Clinton: Both Jackson and Hodges said they’ve had recent conversations with Bill Clinton, though neither would divulge the content of their discussions. “The former president and I stay in contact,” is all Jackson would say.
Ready for Hillary rally fundraiser felt like Obama campaign reunion
The budding alliance between Obama and Clinton forces here – at least the one Clinton supporters wanted to project – was on display last week inside a converted loft space in Columbia, a few blocks from the Congaree River. After similar efforts in Iowa and New Hampshire, Ready For Hillary was hosting its debut fundraiser in South Carolina, collecting small donations (price of entry: $20.16) and e-mail addresses from the 80 or so Democrats who showed up on a balmy Thursday evening.
A bold blue “I’m Ready For Hillary” banner adorned the wall, and organizers handed out pro-Hillary buttons, but the session had the distinct feel of an Obama campaign reunion. State legislators, field operatives, and steering committee members from Obama’s campaign showed up and said nice things about Clinton. Free food, and free media attention, seemed to be part of the attraction.
Senate candidate Rick Wade, a senior Obama adviser in the state, worked the room in a crisp blue suit, greeting friends like state Rep. Bakari Sellers, a young Obama backer in 2008 and today a lieutenant governor candidate who was booked as the fundraiser’s headline speaker.
“It’s hard to say you would endorse somebody who isn’t running yet,” Sellers said when asked whether he would back Clinton in 2016. “I support the former first lady. It’s early. But I do support these efforts.”
Across the way, former Obama aide Jonathan Metcalf, one of Ready for Hillary’s lead organizers, shared an embrace with Kay Koonce, a state Democratic party official and vocal Clinton backer. They were surrounded by Democrats of all races, nibbling on chicken tenders and cheese balls.