CHARLESTON, S.C. – Just days ahead of Saturday’s Democratic primary in South Carolina, a few people backing U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar set up a small ad hoc volunteer command center in a Charleston backyard: a card table spread with the Minnesota senator’s fliers, buttons and bumper stickers.
Bill and Priscilla Rope, a retired couple from Washington, D.C., had driven to Charleston a few days earlier to volunteer on Klobuchar’s behalf. They previously traveled to Iowa to help her. Bill Rope, a retired Foreign Service officer and teacher, was sent to knock doors on Church Street, a narrow one-way lined with stately old homes near Charleston Harbor.
“Amy has won every political race she’s ever run in,” Rope told Patricia Bliss as she stood on the front step of her Church Street house festooned with a plaque denoting its historical significance. “It’s a very good pitch. I loved listening to you,” replied Bliss. But she remained undecided. “I think Amy’s very nice. But I just don’t know,” she said. “It’s the electorate I’m worried about.”
The exchange underscored Klobuchar’s challenge in South Carolina, a state where she’s barely made a dent in the polls.
With little money, little name recognition and few connections to the state, the Minnesota senator appears to be an also-ran in the fourth contest of the primary and caucus season.
Recent polls have shown former Vice President Joe Biden with a healthy lead, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and businessman Tom Steyer, who has spent heavily here, fight for second place.
A Monmouth University poll of South Carolina released Thursday found Klobuchar in sixth place, with just 4% support. Among black voters, who make up more than half the state’s Democratic electorate, Klobuchar was at 0%.
Klobuchar’s campaign has assembled a small South Carolina operation, but in recent days her emphasis has shifted. She last campaigned in South Carolina on Wednesday, opting instead for appearances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the Super Tuesday states of North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
With Biden looking for a comeback, Democrats are closely watching Saturday’s contest in a Southern state with a knack for choosing the eventual presidential candidate. South Carolina Democrats gave a win to the eventual Democratic nominee in six of the last seven presidential cycles.
“Democrats here are small-‘c’ conservative in a sense — the first thing we ask ourselves is, who has the best chance in November?” said Phil Bailey, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state.
Despite Klobuchar’s centrist tendencies, her low poll numbers in South Carolina — on top of disappointing finishes in Iowa and Nevada — have undercut the electability argument so central to her campaign.
“Her profile actually fits well with South Carolina Democrats. Unfortunately, she didn’t seem to have the time or resources for people to get to know her here,” said Bailey, who runs a political consulting firm in the state capital, Columbia.
He said he didn’t see any commercials for Klobuchar until about 10 days ago.
At what turned out to be her final South Carolina rally, on Wednesday afternoon, Klobuchar spoke to about 200 people in an event center on the grounds of the Charles Town Landing State Historic Site, an area known as the birthplace of South Carolina.
“What a great and beautiful place this is. I want to thank you for being such an incredible state and a hospitable city,” Klobuchar said as a steady rain dripped off the palm trees outside.
Klobuchar then launched into a version of her standard campaign speech, which now includes criticisms of Sanders — touching on fears from centrist Democrats that his leftist views will hurt the party in November.
“I’ve made that very clear, that I’m concerned about having Bernie as our candidate, as much as we’re friends. We came into the Senate at the same time and did some important work together on pharmaceuticals,” Klobuchar said. “I was the one candidate who, at the New Hampshire debate, when asked if we’re concerned about having a socialist head the ticket — I raised my hand. Because I was.”
In the audience was Mary Catherine Rogers, a 22-year-old law student in Charleston who said it was her first time seeing a Democratic candidate.
“I’ve previously been a Republican. I’ve been a state convention delegate,” Rogers said. But she said she’s become disenchanted with the party’s rhetoric under President Donald Trump.
“The only candidate who had a bridge from my Republican home to what I want to see for our country is Amy Klobuchar,” Rogers said. She said she’s not sure she could vote Democratic in November if Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the nominee.
“I think 2020 is going to show us what the Democratic Party is,” Rogers said.
The next day, with Klobuchar’s small South Carolina team trying to hustle up votes in Charleston, the candidate was already off to North Carolina to campaign and fundraise ahead of next week’s Super Tuesday contest, when voters in Minnesota and 14 other states and territories go to the polls.
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413