Students at Claflin University listen to Bernie Sanders speak on Friday afternoon. (Photo by Lucian Perkins /for The Washington Post)

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- After a 48-hour absence, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders returned Friday to South Carolina on the eve of the Democratic primary to a reminder of the long odds he faces here: one of the smallest turnouts for a rally of his in some time.

There were far more empty seats than filled ones in the gym at Claflin University, a historically black school in Orangeburg, and only a modest-sized crowd gathered on the floor in front of the stage. The campaign said local police estimated attendance at 450 people, but counts by several reporters were about half that.

Sanders is widely expected to lose South Carolina to Hillary Clinton, probably by double digits, and he has seemed eager to move on. He arrived back in the Palmetto State after a whirlwind tour of mostly Midwestern states with contests in March, drawing crowds by the thousands.

In a 26-minute speech -- about half the usual length of his remarks -- Sanders made no bold predictions of an upset but instead talked about how far he had come since entering the race nine months ago.

“We came to South Carolina from a state far, far away where it gets a little bit colder than it does here,” Sanders said referring to his home state of Vermont. “When we came here to South Carolina, we knew very few people. That’s the simple truth.”

The battle rages among presidential hopefuls in South Carolina and the stakes are higher than ever. The Post's David Weigel walks through what it will take to be crowned the winner of the South's first primary. (Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

Clinton’s strength in the state rests in part on her greater appeal to African American voters, a constituency with which Sanders has struggled to connect despite continuing outreach.

Sanders, who has been more aggressively drawing contrasts with Clinton in recent days, highlighted an issue in Orangeburg that he seldom talked about on the campaign trail until recently: the death penalty.

“I am opposed to the death penalty,” he said. “Not everybody agrees with me. Secretary Clinton does not agree with me.”

Sanders said it’s too easy to execute the wrong person, argued the government should not be involved in killings and said “vengeance is not the answer.”

After an shaking hands and posing photos, his entourage headed to a nearby oyster roast and fish fry to benefit Orangeburg County Solicitor David Pascoe. Sanders’s bus pulled in just as Clinton was finishing remarks to the same crowd.

Sanders’s last stop of the evening was at a concert and rally here in Columbia, where a boisterous crowd was waiting -- but a crowd that filled only a fraction of the 2,500-seat auditorium the campaign had reserved for the event.

Sanders was introduced at all three stops by Killer Mike, an Atlanta-based rapper who has become one of his most visible surrogates to African American audiences.

“I need your help tomorrow, here in South Carolina,” Sanders told the crowd before exiting. “We need you to bring out your brothers and your sisters and your moms and your dads and your kids and your grandparents.”

Bernie Sanders speaks at the annual Oyster Roast and Fish Fry in Orangeburg, SC. Behind him is rapper Killer Mike and Sanders's wife, Jane.
(Photo by Lucian Perkins /for The Washington Post)