By Ginger Gibson and Amanda Becker
COLUMBIA, S.C. (Reuters) – South Carolina became the epicenter of the Democratic presidential primary contest this weekend as 22 candidates descend on the state’s capital to make their pitch for the party’s nomination for president of the United States.
Candidates bounced between two events on Saturday across the street from one another in downtown Columbia that let candidates make their pitch to hundreds of voters.
South Carolina will be the fourth state to hold a primary contest early next year, the first in which a significant proportion of the Democratic electorate – about 60 percent – is black.
At the state Democratic Party’s convention, a parade of more than 20 candidates appeared before organizers and activists in the party.
“Our strength is that we know how to organize, that we know how to do the critical work that needs to be done everyday to ensure that we get our message across,” said U.S. Senator Kamala Harris.
There are 24 Democrats competing for their party’s nomination to challenge Republican President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election.
The candidates in South Carolina offered remarks at a fish fry hosted by U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn on Friday night, battling bugs and the sticky summer heat to shake hands with voters. Their remarks were capped at just a minute, so the Saturday events offered a chance for more detailed exchanges.
Across the street from the party convention, Planned Parenthood Action Fund hosted a “We Decide 2020” forum. As Republicans have stepped up efforts to limit access to legal abortion, the issue is increasingly galvanizing Democrats.
“It is time to go on offense with Roe v. Wade, it’s not enough to say we’ll rely on the courts, we need to pass a federal law to make Roe v. Wade the law of the land,” said U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Former Vice President Joe Biden recently reversed course on the so-called Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortion. He said he was abandoning support for the measure because he also changed his opinion on universal, government-run health insurance.
A former member of the U.S. military who had been sexually assaulted confronted Biden about his reversal, pointing out her military insurance had not covered abortion after she was raped.
“It became really clear to me that although the Hyde Amendment was designed to split the difference … you can’t have access if everyone is covered by a federal policy,” Biden said, and asked the woman to meet with him afterward.
While the candidates stumped before their party’s faithful, hopes of winning South Carolina in a general election remain thin.
South Carolina swings strongly Republican, and its governor and two U.S. senators are Republican. A Democrat last won the state in a presidential election in 1976, and Trump triumphed in South Carolina in 2016 with 54.9% of the vote.
Bernie Sanders brought with him a group of surrogates to make his case, including actor Danny Glover, who traveled from California to campaign for the U.S. Senator from Vermont.
“We are in a desperate moment in this country, and at this particular moment the candidate who can help us in the next chapter is Bernie Sanders,” said Glover.
(Reporting by Ginger Gibson and Amanda Becker; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Chizu Nomiyama and Daniel Wallis)