CHARLESTON, UNITED STATES: The Democratic presidential nomination race shifts to South Carolina today, with Hillary Clinton banking on the black vote to beat Bernie Sanders and gain momentum ahead of the multi-state “Super Tuesday” contests next week.
But in a blow to Clinton on the eve of the vote, Sanders picked up the endorsement of former labor secretary Robert Reich — who served under president Bill Clinton.
“I have the deepest respect and admiration for Hillary Clinton, and if she wins the Democratic primary I’ll work my heart out to help her become president,” Reich said in a statement.
“But I believe Bernie Sanders is the agent of change this nation so desperately needs.”
Clinton leads in the delegate count at this early stage, winning two of the first three nomination contests — in Iowa, narrowly, and then in Nevada.
And in South Carolina, where a little more than half (55 percent) of voters in the 2008 Democratic primary were African American, Clinton is favored to win.
Team Clinton — former president Bill, daughter Chelsea and Hillary — campaigned heavily Friday at churches, coffee shops and universities to ensure a victory.
“She’s battle-tested and can beat the Republicans in November. That’s important to the question of electability,” Chelsea Clinton told students at the College of Charleston.
She acknowledged Democrats probably won’t take back the House of Representatives, “so we have to have a president who knows when to stand your ground, but also knows how to find common ground.”
The candidate, meanwhile, shared a light moment with bridegroom Joe Schreck and his 10 groomsmen at a Charleston cafe, where they had just ordered a round of Bloody Marys.
“I love having men at my feet,” Clinton joked as they posed for a group photo, a few of the men kneeling around her.
Some Clinton supporters say Senator Sanders, a transplanted New Yorker and self-declared democratic socialist who now represents Vermont, is little known in the south.
“He hasn’t been in the eye of the public as long as Hillary has,” said health insurance worker Olivia Brown, 26.
Her mother, 57-year-old science teacher Sharon Williams, added that Clinton is a “household name.”
“She doesn’t give up. She has a very strong fighting spirit. She’s able to always pull along, to find another way to come back and restart her goals.”
Clinton, 68, once the clear-cut favorite, now seems at times to be sputtering against the upstart Sanders.
In South Carolina, her campaign is hammering the message that she is the only candidate who can break down barriers still preventing minorities from getting ahead.
She notes specifically the cost of college education and the need to reduce the disparity between prison sentences meted out to young black offenders and those given to young whites.
“Right now there are barriers, economic barriers, health barriers, education barriers. We also have to be honest about systemic racism, which is still a problem in America,” Clinton said at a town hall in North Charleston.
Sanders, 74, was in South Carolina Friday for a rally and concert but his prospects in the state are poor and he has invested few resources here.
Instead, he is focusing on states like Ohio and Minnesota that vote in March, when a whopping 45 percent of the delegates who will attend the nominating convention are up for grabs.
That means Reich’s endorsement may have come at just the right time.
“He’s leading a movement to reclaim America for the many, not the few,” Reich said of Sanders.
Since he entered the campaign last year, Sanders has made up some lost ground with minorities in terms of face and name recognition.
Some high-profile African Americans have endorsed him, such as film director Spike Lee and the rapper Killer Mike.
The former first lady’s ties with black Americans, while solid, are not without blemishes.
One supporter of the “Black Lives Matter” movement criticized Clinton at a private event Wednesday for defending in 1996 her husband’s policies that led to a disproportionately high incarceration rate for young African Americans.
Her refusal to publish the text of paid speeches she gave to Wall Street banks and investment firms has also become an issue for some voters.
Another sore point for the Clinton campaign is the FBI investigation into her use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.
But the candidate said she was not worried.
“I am, you know, personally not concerned about it, I think that there will be a resolution on the security inquiry,” she told MSNBC.
Polls carried out through last week gave Clinton a clear advantage in South Carolina: about 56 percent compared to 28 percent for Bernie Sanders.
Things are less clear for Super Tuesday. Clinton is ahead in most of the 11 states that will hold Democratic nominating contests, but Sanders has the edge in Massachusetts and his adopted home state of Vermont.