By Trevor Hunnicutt
COLUMBIA, S.C. (Reuters) – Democratic presidential candidates in South Carolina on Saturday accused U.S. President Donald Trump of stoking racism as they vied for the state’s black vote in its strategically important early primary.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and five other Democrats participated in a forum at historically black Benedict College a day after Trump was presented an award there for his work on criminal justice, sparking outrage among candidates and temporarily prompting Senator Kamala Harris to pull out.
Harris, a former district attorney and state attorney general in California, spoke at the event on Saturday after the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, which gave Trump the award, was removed as a sponsor, according to her campaign.
A spokeswoman for that nonprofit group, which continued to be involved in organizing the event throughout the day, did not respond to a request for comment.
“I said I would not come because I just couldn’t believe that Donald Trump would be given an award as it relates to criminal justice reform,” Harris told the audience.
“Let’s be clear: This is somebody who has disrespected the voices that have been present for decades about the need for reform,” she said, criticizing the president for describing an impeachment inquiry against him as a “lynching,” a form of vigilante killing historically associated with white supremacists.
The event is an important showcase for Democrats ahead of South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary, the party’s fourth state-nominating contest. Six in 10 Democratic voters in the state are black and Biden has a strong early lead in local political polls.
In receiving the award on Friday, Trump extolled his record on race and criminal justice before a largely handpicked and appreciative audience. The award recognized Trump last year signing bipartisan legislation including easing harsh minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
Biden told the crowd on Saturday that “I don’t quite understand” why Trump would get the award.
“It’s not just his words that have given rise to hate,” he said. “His actions – his actions have failed the African American community, and all communities.”
Trump hopes his support for a sweeping criminal justice reform law will help him pick up votes among African Americans next year after only winning 8% of the black vote in 2016. The president easily won South Carolina, where Republican voters outnumber Democrats 2-to-1, in 2016.
On Twitter, the president shot back at Harris, calling her a “badly failing presidential candidate” and said low unemployment and new criminal justice reforms achieved during his administration are “more than Kamala will EVER be able to do for African Americans!”
A spokeswoman for Trump’s presidential campaign, Sarah Matthews, added that “only people with desperately failing campaigns try to make this kind of racist nonsense against the President and Republicans work.”
Ten Democrats seeking the presidential nomination are speaking at events in South Carolina this weekend and presenting plans on legalizing marijuana, ending the death penalty and eliminating sentencing disparities for offenses involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine, which have disproportionately affected black people.
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is scheduled to speak on the final day of the criminal justice event on Sunday along with two other Democrats.
In South Carolina, Democrats are working to chip away at a Biden’s early advantage. Bolstered by the eight years he served as vice president to Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, Biden has deep connections with black politicians and clergy.
Biden leads his closest rival in South Carolina, Warren, by nearly 20 percentage points, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls. The state may end up being crucial for the former vice president as a last line of defense if he continues to lose ground to rivals in Iowa and New Hampshire.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Daniel Wallis)