Clinton, Sanders, O’Malley to attend Rock Hill presidential forum

At least three of the Democratic candidates for president – Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley – will attend a nationally televised forum Nov. 6 at Winthrop University, the state Democratic Party confirmed Wednesday.

“The First in the South Presidential Candidates Forum” at Winthrop Coliseum will be moderated by Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC, which will air the forum live.

All of the Democratic hopefuls for president were invited, party officials said, but only former Secretary of State Clinton, U.S. Sen. Sanders of Vermont, and former Maryland Gov. O’Malley have confirmed their plans to attend.

If Vice President Joe Biden, who has been publicly considering the idea of jumping into the race, announces his candidacy before the forum, the state party said, he also will get an invitation.

That Winthrop University has become a venue capable of hosting such a major, nationally televised political event – along with three separate visits this year from Republican presidential candidates – shows the institution has developed a reputation for hosting high-profile political events, said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop political scientist and Winthrop Poll director.

“In ’04, we basically only had crazy third-party candidates come to speak,” Huffmon said.

Rock Hill’s strategic location helps too. Candidates can clock in an appearance in the Palmetto State ahead of its first-in-the-South primary, but also pick up coverage in North Carolina from Charlotte-based media, after the short drive down from Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Democrats “at least see an opportunity to narrow the gap” in South Carolina, said York Technical College political science instructor Rick Whisonant, “but in North Carolina they have an opportunity to win the electoral vote.”

The co-hosts for the forum are the S.C. Democratic Party, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the Democratic National Committee’s Southern Regional Caucus and 12 other state Democratic parties. The Winthrop event will include a series of policy meetings where Democratic leaders from the South will gather to define the “New South.”

“We’re thrilled to provide an opportunity for the Democratic presidential candidates to speak to South Carolina voters and voters all across the South,” said Jaime Harrison, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party. “This forum will allow candidates to share their visions for our country, speak to Southern-specific issues and concerns, and show that Democrats are focused on giving working- and middle-class families an opportunity to succeed.”

Democrats in South Carolina have struggled so much in past elections, “they’ve been pronounced dead,” Huffmon said.

“This is a chance to highlight the vibrancy of the party” in the state, Huffmon said. “But whether it can take root we’ll have to see in future elections. ... Party rebuilding can be a slow process.”

But while the party’s hold has slipped considerably since the days of the “Solid South,” demographic trends in the region appear to favor Democrats. Whisonant predicts Georgia could join North Carolina in the Democrats’ column within the next decade.

“You can see the demographics shifting with more Latino voters, and because of the Barack Obama effect in 2012, you had more African-Americans voting than whites, percentage-wise, for the first time,” Whisonant said.

Tickets for the forum at Winthrop have not yet been made available, but S.C. Democratic communications director Diane May said information should soon be available at FirstInTheSouth.com. A sign-up page for the event already exists, but with the caveat that “signing up does not guarantee you will receive a ticket.”

Don Worthington: 803-329-4066, @rhherald_donw

Bristow Marchant: 803-329-4062, @BristowatHome