FLORENCE, South Carolina — Following an organist’s rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Hillary Clinton preached from the pulpit of the Cumberland United Methodist Church Thursday, speaking on faith and politics to a largely African-American crowd.
Some were about to be converted.
Clinton began her remarks describing her own Methodist beliefs, saying “I’m very appreciative that I’ve been given the gift of faith.” Throughout her speeches, she often invoked religious language, saying she would heal wounds and cross political divides.
“Somebody once asked me a long time ago — when my husband was president — if I were a praying person,” the former secretary of state said. “I said ‘Well, I am, but if you have ever lived in the White House, you know you have to be.’”
Clinton spent Thursday deep in the south of the Palmetto state, the latest in an aggressive schedule around South Carolina ahead of Saturday’s primary, where a [Real Clear Politics polling] average has her beating Sanders by more than 24 points.
She spoke at colleges, conference centers and churches, delivering a stump speech tailored with details for a South Carolina crowd. While Sanders’ speeches have broadly indicted political and economic institutions, the former secretary of state was specific.
She praised South Carolina’s recent passage of the nation’s first law requiring police body cameras, referenced a tire plant in Sumter to illustrate an economic point and scorned Gov. Nikki Haley for refusing federal Medicaid money.
“We have work to do,” she said, a coda repeated in her remarks throughout the day.
With a large lead in the state — not to mention news reports following Nevada anointing her the inevitable nominee — Clinton didn’t seem too worried about Sanders, and devoted few words to criticism.
Her sharpest attacks were directed at the Vermont senator’s moderate record on guns, an especially effective criticism in a region devastated by a mass shooting in Charleston last summer at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
She promised to close loopholes, find common ground and restrict access and equipment to potentially dangerous people.
“We’ve had a lot of talk in this election about powerful lobbyists – Wall Street, big oil, insurance companies — yeah, they are powerful,” Clinton said in Florence. “But the most powerful lobby in Washington is the gun lobby.”
Clinton clearly sees gun control as a salient issues in the state, releasing an ad focused on the the Charleston massacre and enlisting Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, on the trail.
On Thursday, Gross took harder hits at Sanders than Clinton, shaming him for repeatedly voting against background checks and legislation to make gun manufacturers liable for malpractice
Clinton is enlisting a number of surrogates in South Carolina, including a smattering of state politicians, celebrities and family members.
In appearances, she often invoked the work of presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, men who are wildly popular in the state.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) delivered an Obamaesque speech for Clinton Thursday, an oratory masterpiece that had the crowd on the edge of their pews.
Seeking to cast Clinton as a consistent, courageous ally of African-Americans, Booker highlighted her record before evoking his own heritage in a moving portrait of black struggle in America.
At one point, Booker held back tears as he spoke about cradling a young boy in Newark, who died in his arms from a gunshot wound.
“I was broken, I was angry,” he said. “I wept in that sink as I tried to get the blood off my hands.”
Shifting to politics, Booker portrayed Sanders as someone new to the fight, a politician speaking on issues in African-American communities as a matter of political necessity.
“The problems of racial disparities didn’t begin in this campaign, they go deep in every state,” Booker said, to nods and “mmm-hmm” from the crowd. “Vermont has one percent African-Americans, but their prison population is 11 percent black.”
The Clinton Crowd
Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders by double-digits among nearly every age group of African Americans in South Carolina. But among blacks over 45, she trounces him, winning 78 percent of the crucial voting bloc, according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
A majority of the supporters who showed up to see Clinton Thursday were black, and appeared to be over 45. A few white faces sprinkled the crowds, and there were some young African-Americans, but not many.
A number of supporters said they were adamant Obama fans in 2008, and that they were just as passionate for Clinton.
When asked why they supported the former secretary of state, many said she was best equipped to handle the plethora of issues facing the country, from education to the Zika virus. Many answers included the words “realistic” or “experience.”
“You see how difficult it is now,” said Edwina McGill, 33. “Let’s be honest, President Obama is a pragmatist, he’s not some left-wing liberal. So if he’s had difficulty trying to implement his policies, can you imagine trying to execute Bernie Sanders’ ideas?”
Some of the Clinton supporters said Sanders was a fine candidate, and offered no real criticism. But many portrayed him as a dangerous politician, one who was lying to young people by overselling pie-in-the-sky ideas.
“When you rile people up, it’s just not a good thing,” said Linda Bell, who waited in line for more than an hour to see Clinton.
“He’s got a yelling spirit,” she added. “I would like to see him calm, like a grandfather, to talk.”
Toni James, 67 said Clinton cares about America, and has demonstrated that she can produce pragmatic policy in a gridlocked congress.
“Government is not explained very well in our public schools,” James said. “And without that knowledge, people will go out speaking like Bernie Sanders.”
She said that Sanders could damage the spirit of young Democrats, asserting that “God forbid, if he gets elected, young people will be very disappointed and they might not ever vote again.”
Cacie Ervin, 23, was one of the few young Clinton supporters who showed Thursday. She said that while some friends of hers are feeling the Bern, her study of political science at Francis Marion University has made her more pragmatic.
“Clinton talks about how to tackle problems in my community,” Ervin said. “Her ideas are more realistic, they are within reach.”
A number of Clinton supporters also faulted Sanders for not reaching out enough in their communities, and knocking on doors.
“Who’s Bernie Sanders?” Mitchell Mangum joked in Florence, before adding: “He says some crazy things.”
“He says he is going to give free universities, but he can’t pass it without 60 votes in the Senate,” Mangum continued. “He plans to buy my vote by not telling the truth.”
While Sanders has been to the Palmetto state many times, he ditched the trail Wednesday for whiter states, where he fares better. He is scheduled to return Friday for a last-minute pitch to voters before the primary contest on Saturday.
Pastor Thomas Dixon, who recently announced a challenge to current Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, was one of the few attendees who had praise for Sanders, adding he wasn’t making an official endorsement in the race.
“I don’t want anybody to say I voted for so-and-so because Pastor Dixon is voting for them,” he said, spurning the action of many pastors who have backed Clinton. “I don’t think that’s good democracy.”
He had praise for both Clinton and Sanders’ proposals, noting he has attended rallies for both candidates.
“I can respect Senator Sanders for how he has energized that young group and gotten them involved in the process,” Dixon said.
But while the pastor kept his cards close to the chest, he acknowledged that his main issue in 2016 was gun control. When Clinton began outlining her proposal to rein in the National Rifle Association, Dixon stood up and cheered, holding up a banner reading “Enough!”
He appeared to be a convert.