ROCK HILL, S.C. — It wasn’t a debate — technically. But as the candidates sat in the bright red hot seat one after the other during a Friday night Democratic candidate forum in South Carolina, they were given plenty of opportunities to swipe at the candidates ahead of them in the polls, and for the most part, they took them.
For former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, that meant taking the high road and avoiding directly attacking her opponents, while also taking the brunt of their attacks.
For weeks, people have been “begging me to beat up on Hillary Clinton,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) protested. “I resisted, I resisted, I resisted.”
On Friday night, Sanders made it clear that he is no longer resisting.
“I have many disagreements with Hillary Clinton, and one of them is I don’t think it’s good enough just to talk the talk on campaign finance reform. You’ve got to walk the walk,” he said. “I’m the only Democratic candidate who does not have a super PAC.”
The late-February South Carolina primary is touted as the first contest in the South and the first true test of Democrats’ ability to draw enthusiasm from a critical segment of their base: African American voters.
With the primary debate schedule set, the event that was hosted at Winthrop University and moderated by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, was not an official debate. Rather, it was structured as three one-on-one interview-style forums.
Maddow pledged to ask questions that would move the candidates away from their talking points, and highlighted the differences among them without stoking petty controversy.
And so, at the onset, she and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley bandied about for a few minutes about Democratic political struggles in the South. Then O’Malley, when given the opportunity to attack Clinton for her delay in opposing the Keystone XL oil pipeline, came out swinging.
“Secretary Clinton got here just last week, and I was against it a year ago,” O’Malley said. “I think it’s important, because I think leadership isn’t about following the polls.”
During his session, Sanders joined in: “Unlike some other unnamed candidates” he said, “the issue of Keystone was kind of a no-brainer. It never made sense to me from day one.”
By the time Clinton appeared before the warmed-up audience, she delivered an at-ease performance focused heavily on bread-and-butter Democratic issues such as gun control and criminal justice reform. She spoke at length and in some of her most stark language, about concerns — particularly among African Americans — about excessive and racially skewed policing.
“I still can’t get over that Eric Garner in New York died from a chokehold,” she said naming an unarmed black man whose death during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes in New York sparked nationwide protest. “Okay, maybe he shouldn’t have been selling cigarettes, but did he deserve to die because of that? Absolutely not.”
Clinton was challenged on some issues — the Defense of Marriage Act and the death penalty — but declined to go after her opponents.
Though the South Carolina primary is still months away, Clinton has a major lead in the state, garnering the support of 71 percent of likely primary voters and 80 percent of black Democratic voters.
“It’s not like she’s paddling against a tide. However, she has to continue her momentum,” said Scott Huffmon , who conducted the Winthrop poll.
This is Clinton’s second chance in the state after a 2008 loss to then-Sen. Barack Obama in the Democratic primary. Then, she failed to create a winning coalition of black voters — who were 55 percent of the primary electorate — and white Southerners, who are a dwindling Democratic constituency.
This week, all three candidates burnished their credentials on issues important to black voters — principally among them criminal-justice reform. Clinton and Sanders also made a clear pivot directed at bringing white voters back into the party.
“I’m going to go out and talk to white working-class Americans and say, ‘Why do you keep voting against your own best interests?’” Sanders said. “We have got to make a major focus on getting white working-class people back into the Democratic Party.”
Clinton noted a “crisis” of health and addiction that has led to high mortality rates for white middle-class males.
In 2008, according to Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), Clinton “ran up against history” in South Carolina — specifically the rise of what would be the nation’s first black president.
Clyburn, who has pledged to remain neutral in the race until after the primary, suggested that this time around it would be Clinton who would be the beneficiary of a historic candidacy.
“She cut her political teeth in Southern politics,” Clyburn said. “She’s a brilliant woman.”
“Sanders, O’Malley seem to be running up against history,” he added.