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Diverse electorate tests Democratic field in South Carolina

Senator Kamala Harris spoke in Columbia, S.C., Friday.
Senator Kamala Harris spoke in Columbia, S.C., Friday.(Meg Kinnard/AP)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Kamala Harris took a novel approach to campaigning in the crucial early voting state of South Carolina Friday.

Unlike other presidential hopefuls, the senator from California did not make her debut here with a public rally or at a gymnasium. Rather, she appeared at a glitzy charity event, the annual “Pink Ice” gala of Alpha Kappa Alpha, and appealed to fellow members of America’s oldest black sorority.

“My mother taught us long ago, she would say to me, ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last,’ and that is truly part of the essence of our sorority,” Harris said in a brief speech.

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In a state where nearly 40 percent of Democratic primary voters in 2016 were black women, Harris’s debut Friday night was a show of force, hinting at a sizable network that she can mobilize in the months ahead. In diverse South Carolina, increasingly seen as the primary state that picks Democratic presidents, Harris is the only candidate with a powerful personal story of breaking political barriers as a woman of color. That could prove decisive in a crowded Democratic field of candidates with progressive platforms.

“Any candidate who can excite black women and women of color has a great shot at winning this state,” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a South Carolina state lawmaker.

But with the primary still more than a year away, local political experts caution that most South Carolina voters don’t yet know much about Harris’s platform, electability, and record as a prosecutor in California. They predict fierce competition, particularly from former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Cory Booker, should either run. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, both white progressives from New England, likely face longer odds, but have explicitly embraced a message of racial justice in addition to calls for economic fairness.

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“There’s not a sense that if you have an economic justice message that will be sufficient,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a political group focused on women of color. “You have to speak fluently and credibly to the most powerful block of Democratic voters — women of color.”

Sanders, who lost South Carolina to Hillary Clinton by a stunning 50 points three years ago, called Trump a “racist” in remarks at a rally on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Columbia, and decried the effects of gentrification, poverty, and the criminal justice system on black communities.

In 2016, Sanders was criticized for at times insufficiently emphasizing the effects of racial discrimination on economic inequality. Sanders took his losses in the South seriously, his advisers say.

And although he has yet to declare for 2020, Sanders is nonetheless working to prove his credentials to black voters, including civil rights activism that dates to the 1960s.

“I think it’s a different ballgame,” Sanders adviser Mark Longabaugh said of South Carolina. “We’re going to work hard to make sure people know this: Bernie Sanders has been fighting racial injustice his entire life.”

In a recent profile in GQ magazine, Sanders took an oblique swipe at Democratic candidates of color.

His opponents, Sanders said, “think that all that we need is people who are candidates who are black or white, who are black or Latino or woman or gay, regardless of what they stand for, that the end result is diversity.” Sanders argued it was more important to rally around the person — presumably him — with the best plan to take on the “powerful ruling class.”

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Senator Bernie Sanders was in Columbia on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Senator Bernie Sanders was in Columbia on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.(Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

For her part, Warren can point to a long academic record researching and writing on the effects of racial discrimination on the economic conditions of black Americans.

She has consistently woven racial justice into her populist message, including a 2015 Boston speech in which she decried violence against African-Americans.

Warren’s first showing in South Carolina drew nearly 1,000 people at Columbia College Wednesday night. She introduced herself as the product of a working-class childhood in Oklahoma, and drew gasps when she said the gap in homeownership between black and white families is wider now than 50 years ago — when black families faced widespread discrimination in the housing market.

“I spent pretty much my whole grown-up life focused on one central question: What’s happening to working people in America?” Warren said. “Why has the path gotten so rocky for so many people who work hard? And why is it so much rockier for African-Americans?”

After the speech, Warren pushed back when a reporter asked if she was intentionally emphasizing race in South Carolina.

“I make these same arguments in Iowa, in New Hampshire,” Warren told reporters. “I’ve made these same arguments from the floor of the United States Senate. I’ve made these same arguments in the work that I have done for pretty much all of my grown-up life.”

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Gabby Reed, a Columbia College sophomore, said she was open to voting for Warren after hearing her speak. But Reed is also drawn to Harris, and the promise of change from having a fellow black woman hold the nation’s highest office. “I would love to see a woman of color in the office,” Reed said.

The stakes are high in South Carolina, which more accurately reflects the demographics of the Democratic Party than do the two states that hold primaries before it, Iowa and New Hampshire. A winning message here could become a powerful platform nationally.

To be sure, Harris’s background as a graduate of a historically black university and pathbreaking woman of color gives her a powerful personal connection to voters here. But it is by no means a guarantee her campaign will resonate in South Carolina.

“People want to be able to relate to you and have some kind of connection and familiarity,” said Jaime Harrison, a DNC official and former chair of South Carolina’s Democratic Party. “Just because you’re from the South, just because you’re African-American, doesn’t mean you will be automatically received in a particular way in South Carolina.”

If there is one issue that may trouble Harris here, it is her record as a prosecutor and attorney general in California. Some liberals have raised concerns she came down too hard on some lower-level offenders — an issue of longstanding concern in the black community.

Though she identifies as a “progressive prosecutor” who tried to change the system from within, Harris has at times struggled to respond to criticism of her record. Asked about the issue at the gala Friday night, Harris said she didn’t want to talk about criminal justice reform in “sound bites.”

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“There has for so long been an appetite for criminal justice policy that ends with an exclamation point, and no good public policy ends with an exclamation point,” she said.

Antjuan Seawright, a Columbia-based political consultant, said at some point Harris will need to address the issue in South Carolina.

“Defend it and move on,” Seawright said. “Don’t let it be a crowning issue.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren, shown speaking Wednesday at a rally in Columbia, also was in the Palmetto State this week.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, shown speaking Wednesday at a rally in Columbia, also was in the Palmetto State this week.(Travis Dove/New York Times)

Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.