Offering alternatives to Clinton, ‘16 Dem hopefuls converge on South Carolina

Columbia, South Carolina CNN  — 

The rain fell relentlessly on the convention center in Columbia on Saturday morning as Democrats from all parts of South Carolina flooded their party’s state convention to see Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley speak.

Addressing a convention hall of more than 800 delegates from around The Palmetto State, the group comprised some of the most notable potential candidates to seek the party’s nomination for President in 2016.

But the most notable candidate, Hillary Clinton, was conspicuously absent.

McAuliffe, who ran Clinton’s failed 2008 campaign, kicked off the gathering by acknowledging his full support for her 2016 bid. In a video message, Clinton thanked South Carolinians for their efforts in her newly-minted candidacy. Despite the lack of a Republican nominee, Clinton projected that the GOP will be “offering the same economic agenda that has failed American families again and again – a throwback to the past instead of a vision for the future.” The delegates, many of whom were women, seemed fired up for Clinton’s statement, meeting her message with cheers.

Clinton also made a veiled reference to the shooting of Walter Scott, a black man who was killed by a white police officer in Charleston earlier this month. “You (South Carolinians) care that everyone is treated with respect by law enforcement,” she said.

A senior campaign official with Hillary for America told CNN that the campaign already has more than 600 volunteers in South Carolina, and Clinton is expected to visit the state next month.

Next up was Sanders, an independent who has hinted that he’ll join the 2016 race as a Democratic contender. He was greeted with a standing ovation when he took the stage, and peppered his 20-minute speech calling for familiar progressive principles, including a better economy for the lower and middle classes, a higher minimum wage and closing the wage gap between rich and poor in the United States.

Fellow New Englander Chafee made his first high-profile appearance since announcing his exploratory committee, and took the opportunity to lay forth a rough vision of his campaign based on the premise of “Good policy, good politics.” For the Republican-turned-Democrat, that means Head Start programs, universal health care and an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.

“How dumb can the Republicans be to be beating up on the fastest-growing voting bloc in the country? That’s one we gotta grab!” he said. “A path to citizenship is not only good policy, it’s good politics.”

Chafee also highlighted his experience, pointing to his experience as mayor of Warwick, Rhode Island, his term representing the state in the Senate and his one-term governorship. And while he didn’t mention Clinton by name, he called the Iraq War “the biggest mistake in American history,” and reminded the crowd that he was the only Republican to vote against the invasion in 2002.

Wrapping up the day was O’Malley, who, similarly to Clinton, drew parallels between South Carolina and his home state of Maryland over a “shared legacy of police-involved deaths.”

Speaking to CNN after his speech, O’Malley expanded on his remarks.

“There’s probably very few issues quite as intertwined to the really painful racial legacy in our country than the issue of law enforcement and public safety,” he said. “We have to be able to talk to one another, we have to be able to acknowledge our fears and our shortcomings, and we have to make all of our institutions, including our police departments, more open and transparent.”

CNN’s Dan Merica contributed to this report.