COLUMBIA, S.C. — As Democratic leaders and activists gathered here Saturday for their annual state party convention, they chatted in corridors and at coffee stands about Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her campaign staffers buzzed around with clipboards to sign up volunteers. To many, the promise of the first female president seemed exhilarating.
But the candidate was missing. In Clinton’s absence, her longtime booster, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, did his duty again. But the response from the 1,000 convention delegates and activists was lukewarm. And when McAuliffe signaled for a video message from Clinton to play, there was a technical glitch. Then silence.
“It’s on her e-mail somewhere,” shouted one man from the back of the convention hall, referring to Clinton’s controversial use of a private e-mail server as secretary of state.
What soon followed were fresh reminders that, although Clinton is as dominant a front-runner for the nomination as any non-incumbent in recent history, the hearts of party activists are not yet hers.
Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont toying with a primary challenge to Clinton, brought Democrats to their feet with a fiery sermon about the hollowed-out middle class and the rise of an “oligarchic form of society” controlled by billionaires.
The reception Sanders received — several delegates called him “electric” — surprised Rep. James E. Clyburn, the state’s most powerful Democrat, who took it all in from the back of the hall.
“I really did not anticipate that from Bernie,” Clyburn said. “It says something about people’s thirst and hunger for a real message.”
Delegates rose again for Martin O’Malley, the ambitious former Maryland governor, after he spoke with rhetorical flourish about the undying American dream and gave a muscular defense of such liberal ideals as increasing wages, expanding Social Security benefits and cracking down on Wall Street banks.
O’Malley, who lately has amped up his attacks on Clinton, took an apparent swipe at his more cautious and calculating rival in his speech: “Leadership is about forming a public opinion, not about chasing after it. It’s not about the polls. It’s about our principles.”
Sanders and O’Malley joined a small parade of lesser-known White House hopefuls who came through Columbia this weekend, seizing opportunities to undermine Clinton and deliver populist pitches constructed to enthrall the same activists who fueled an upset eight years ago, when Barack Obama trounced Clinton here, 55 percent to 27 percent.
As O’Malley left the stage, Democrats swarmed him asking for selfies. The scene led one former Obama campaign staffer, Jonathan Metcalf, to remark: “I started with Barack Obama when he was 38 points down in South Carolina. It was supposed to be impossible. Martin O’Malley can do this — he absolutely can.”
Later, when a reporter asked how his message differs from Clinton’s, O’Malley quipped: “Was she here? I guess it was different in every way.”
Lincoln Chafee, a former Rhode Island governor and senator, also addressed the convention, while former Virginia senator Jim Webb was represented by a surrogate.
South Carolinians are proud to hold the South’s first presidential primary and have grown accustomed to face time with candidates. Many delegates said Clinton made a mistake by not attending the convention, the largest annual gathering of local Democratic leaders.
“I’m disappointed that she doesn’t seem to be paying a lot of attention to South Carolina. I think she should be here. That’s one of the reservations with her,” said Bruce Sanders of Columbia, a delegate who works for a flooring company. “As it stands now, I’m probably for Hillary, but I’m willing to think about it a little more.”
Other delegates already had their minds made up. “It’s about time we had a woman, and here’s a very qualified woman,” said Rose Pellatt, 71, a Clinton supporter who works at a community college. “She may not be perfect, but who is? Why can’t we have a female president? I’ve worked too hard not to have this come to pass before I die.”
The wait to see Clinton will soon end. She is scheduled to make her first visit to South Carolina next month, aides said, and the campaign’s mantra here is the same as in the other early caucus and primary states: She will work to earn every vote.
The Clinton team is staffing up, with a half-dozen paid organizers across the state, and has built a volunteer corps of more than 600. A top national staffer, Marlon Marshall, was in South Carolina working delegates. On Friday, he and other Clinton aides mingled with activists at Clyburn’s famous fish fry, a rollicking party staged in a downtown parking garage with hip-hop music blaring and people dancing into the night.
In 2008, Clinton’s ties to Clyburn were damaged when Bill Clinton made a series of anti-Obama comments on the campaign trail that many in this heavily African American state interpreted as race-baiting. This year, Hillary Clinton extended an olive branch when she hired a Clyburn protege, Clay Middleton, to run her South Carolina campaign.
Clyburn, who recounted the painful 2008 episode in his memoir, said in an interview that he reserves “no venom” for the Clintons. “I have no problems with Bill or Hillary. I can be as enthusiastic about her candidacy as I have been for anybody. . . . [But] I will not endorse anybody before the Democratic primary in South Carolina.”
For now, Clyburn said, it is important that all presidential aspirants get a fair hearing. One of them is Chafee, an ex-Republican, who has signaled he would run against Clinton from the left on foreign policy. “Are we ready to end these wars?” he cried out to partygoers at the fish fry.
The next morning, Chafee took an apparent swipe at Clinton’s ethics. “We want to see someone who hasn’t had scandal after scandal after scandal,” he said. “I’ve never had an ethical blemish.”
Webb, another potential challenger, skipped the South Carolina convention to attend the White House correspondents’ dinner in Washington. He was represented on stage by adviser David “Mudcat” Saunders, who called Webb “a great American hero.”
At Saturday’s convention, once the audio-visual equipment was fixed, Clinton’s video played. She repeated the early themes of her campaign, saying, “South Carolinians need a champion, and I want to be that champion.”
Although delegates seemed to be half-listening. The video projection was so soft and the convention hall’s lighting so bright that they couldn’t make out the picture.
In closing, Clinton said: “I look forward to seeing you in person, too. Have a great evening.”
The problem was, it wasn’t evening. It was 10:35 a.m.