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Can South Carolina warm up to Bernie Sanders?

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Bernie Sanders hasn’t surrendered South Carolina, though his campaign knows it will be a challenge.

“South Carolina is a place where we have a lot of work to do,” Sanders spokesman Mike Briggs said.

The senator from Vermont is not well-known here. His New England background, emphasis on democratic socialism and New York accent aren’t familiar in the South. The latest average of the most recent statewide polls, taken last month, showed his opponent, Hillary Clinton, with a 66 percent to 26 percent lead.

His biggest challenge is attracting the African-American vote, where Clinton shows strength: Blacks made up 55 percent of the 2008 Democratic presidential primary vote.

Yet that doesn’t mean Sanders’ chances in the state’s Feb. 27 primary are impossible, just dim. Younger voters, who don’t feel a deep devotion to Clinton, are still deciding. And Clinton’s wins aren’t guaranteed in the early states.

South Carolina follows the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus, Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary and Feb. 20 Nevada caucus. It falls four days before 13 states, many in the South, hold contests. For Clinton, who could struggle in Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina is where she resonates.

Democrats’ next presidential debate is Feb. 11 in Wisconsin, the only debate now scheduled before the South Carolina primary

“It’s not as inevitable as people think it is,” Rick Wade, a senior adviser in President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, said of a Clinton win.

The key to Sanders getting better known among African-Americans is to push particularly hard for the votes of women, who tend to vote in bigger numbers, said Jaime Harrison, South Carolina Democratic chairman. “He has to visit every church and every beauty shop,” he said.

Sanders attended services Jan. 17 at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where nine African-Americans lost their lives in a mass shooting. Suspect Dylann Roof, a white 21-year-old, has pleaded not guilty.

Sanders has visited historically black colleges and universities in the state, and he has run a radio ad aimed at black voters featuring Reg E. Cathey, an African-American actor from the cast of “The Wire” and “House of Cards.”

In his speeches, Sanders cites his own history of strong support for civil rights. He recalled for 800 Democrats at the Jan. 16 party gala in Charleston how he was present for the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights and jobs. He discussed his hopes for easing income inequality and revamping parts of the criminal justice system.

I remember the day very well. And I remember the moment, the period, well

Bernie Sanders recalling his participation in the 1963 March on Washington

Sanders got a lukewarm response from that audience. “What he did was isolate us and put us in a special position,” said David Boatwright of Springfield. Talk to black voters the way you’d talk to anyone, he said.

Clinton got a warmer reception. At the party dinner, she recalled attending the Charleston memorial service for the church shooting victims with President Barack Obama last year. She called it “one of those moments that those of us who were there will never forget.”

When he started singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ I thought I was going to fall on the floor

Hillary Clinton recalling President Barack Obama at the memorial service for the Charleston church shooting victims

Around the state, the former secretary of state is expected to perform strongest in the Pee Dee region, the state’s northeastern corner, and the adjacent “Corridor of Shame,” a lower-income area that runs roughly along Interstate 95, said Scott Huffmon, director of the Winthrop University poll.

Sanders’ strength is likely to depend largely on voters’ access to information, which Huffmon called “the first requirement to being a converted voter.” Those areas are more likely to be in the areas around the state’s larger cities, Columbia and Greenville-Spartanburg.

Sanders has to overcome some other disadvantages. The Jan. 17 Charleston debate was the last Democrats have scheduled in the state before the primary, an advantage for the better-known Clinton.

“She has a long history, a lot of experience,” said Vertelle Middleton, a Charleston college administrator.

Still, there is a faint drumbeat of concern. Clinton began the 2008 South Carolina race as a strong favorite, only to lose to Obama, who wound up getting four of every five black votes.

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Bill Clinton stirred outrage in some circles when he said voters identifying with race or gender is “understandable, because people are proud when someone who they identify with emerges for the first time.”

And some voters continue to express frustration with politics as usual. Sanders’ advantage is his anti-establishment platform.

“I want to hear more about him,” said Barbara Elliott, an Orangeburg teacher.

Clinton forces won’t even suggest vulnerability. “She’s going to get this state,” said Donald Fowler, a veteran South Carolina Democratic activist and former national party chairman. “There is no challenger this time who faintly resembles Barack Obama.”

Clinton, in other words, is counting heavily on South Carolina. “It’s a very important litmus test for her,” said Wade.

Hillary Clinton does not lead every age demographic among likely Democratic primary voters, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll. Find out where Bernie Sanders beats her and more from Marist Institute's Lee Meringoff. (Marist)

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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