COLUMBIA, S.C. — Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to South Carolina this week and began to confront one of the most pointed threats she faces so far on the campaign trail: echoes from her campaign of seven years ago.
Cognizant of how her campaign angered African-Americans in the Palmetto State — especially when her husband made series of comments viewed as dismissive of Barack Obama — Clinton took pains to make amends. Before showing up, she reached out to a key South Carolina leader who had been critical. And when Clinton spoke to activists, she twice referred to the 2008 primary, at one point calling it a “pretty vigorous” campaign.
Few in the audience needed a reminder.
“We are Southern, honey. We hold a grudge for a long time,” said Phyllis Harris, a 61-year-old African-American woman from Camden. She recounted how she felt Clinton disrespected voters in the state in 2008 by packing up and leaving for Tennessee before she conceded.
“She needs to convince me, to take the time to convince my people,” Harris said.
South Carolina is foremost among several early primary states where the ghosts of Clinton’s past campaign haunt the trail, posing thornier problems in the early stages of her campaign than her declared opponents. The memories of 2008 may not threaten her place in the polls, but exorcising them is crucial if she wants build the kind of enthusiasm that will keep stronger party rivals on the sidelines and inspire volunteers to promote her candidacy.
The last Clinton campaign kicked off with a series of large events where hundreds packed into town hall meetings and rallies in Iowa and New Hampshire to cheer her. This time the campaign has stopped trying to elevate her to rock-star status.
“She’s not as effective from the podium’’ as Bill Clinton and Obama, said Kurt Meyer, a Democratic activist in Iowa. “Neither of them, fine as they are speaking to 1,000 fans, can compete with her in the six or eight people sitting around the table.”
Meyer should know. A local Democratic leader, he was tapped to sit with Clinton at a coffee shop during one of her first events in Marshalltown, Iowa, last month. The Clinton campaign filmed the friendly exchange and posted it on her Facebook page. It has been viewed more than a quarter million times.
The overwhelming size of the Clinton staff was also a problem in the past. Meyer said he brought it up in an early meeting with Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook. “I said, ‘One of the things you all have to know about a rural county is if you get off a Greyhound bus and 47 self-important people get off . . . it doesn’t work in Mitchell County.”
During Clinton’s first pass through the state in mid-April, Meyer was pleased to see that the cadre of campaign aides staff had shrunk. But during her more recent stop he started hearing reports that those numbers began to swell, particularly at what was supposed to be an intimate gathering at a private home in Eastern Iowa. Meyer complained to the Clinton campaign. “They said, ‘You were right. We had way too much staff in Dubuque,’ ” he recalled.
Nowhere is the Clinton campaign more haunted than in South Carolina, a state where the primary contest descended into a racially charged brawl. At one point Bill Clinton downplayed the significance of the first Southern primary by pointing out that Jesse Jackson won it in 1988, a remark many saw as diminishing both the state and the historic nature of Obama’s rise. He also referred to Obama’s stance on Iraq as a “fairy tale.” The quip offended Representative James Clyburn, one of the state’s most important black leaders, because he viewed it as a backhanded attempt to paint the entire Obama campaign as make-believe. The race drama peaked when the former president let loose a frustrated rant accusing the Obama camp of playing a race card. “Once you accuse somebody of racism or bigotry or something, the facts become irrelevant,” he said. He then blamed the press for accepting the Obama spin. “They are feeding you this because they know this is what you want to cover. This is what you live for.”
This year Hillary Clinton has tried to mend fences, hiring a former Clyburn aide, Clay Middleton, to run her operation in South Carolina. She also called Clyburn several days before her trip Wednesday. The two discussed her campaign and upcoming visit, said Amanda Loveday, a Clyburn spokeswoman. (He was out of town during her stop and didn’t attend any of her events.)
Clyburn doesn’t plan on endorsing anyone for the primary this time and he eagerly invited Clinton’s challengers to visit in a statement to the Globe.
“I welcome any and all Democratic presidential candidates to South Carolina, a state that offers distinctive opportunities to hone messages in relatively inexpensive media markets,” Clyburn said.
Scars also remain in the Nevada desert, where activists recall the hand-to-hand combat between the Obama and Clinton camps over the state’s caucuses. That fight ended up in court, with the Nevada State Education Association, which backed Clinton, filing a federal lawsuit over the state’s voting rules. Clinton also failed to secure a coveted endorsement from the state’s culinary union, which is the largest and backed Obama.
Clinton won the state’s popular vote, and held out an olive branch to the union on her recent visit. “I’ve met with a lot of culinary workers and other workers who keep the economy going strong,” she said, recalling her 2008 days in the state.
“The last time the mistake they made was they took a lot of things for granted,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada. “This time it seems like they are much more interested in listening to folks who might not have agreed with her in the past.”
Even in Massachusetts, Clinton and her team must grapple with another unpleasant echo of 2008 — the state’s senior senator. Last time it was the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who wound up endorsing Obama, a huge blow to Clinton. This time Clinton must court Senator Elizabeth Warren, who holds sway over a huge liberal fan base and whose help will be crucial in getting such activists fired up if Clinton makes it to the general election.
In New Hampshire, Clinton’s ghosts are friendly. Its primary voters revived Bill Clinton’s presidential hopes in 1992 when he came in second, and it injected momentum into her bruised campaign eight years ago, when she won it after losing Iowa.
Those memories were on Clinton’s mind when she stopped in the Granite State several weeks ago. “I came here in 1991,” Clinton said while chatting with one man on her first stop in the state at a bakery in Keene. “I celebrated my birthday here.”
Later, at a business round table held nearby she brought it up again, saying she was “thrilled” to be back in the state. “I have a lot of wonderful memories.”
Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.