COLUMBIA, S.C. — Several Democratic presidential candidates, hoping to chip away at former Vice President Joe Biden’s support in South Carolina, gathered in the state capital Monday morning to make remarks honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and take part in an annual holiday march and rally that had election-year overtones.
At about 10:15 a.m., seven candidates, joined by local dignitaries, linked arms and began the six-block walk from the Zion Baptist Church to the Statehouse, singing “We Shall Overcome” for part of the trip.
Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who sparred last week over their recollections of a private conversation about whether a woman could win the presidency, appeared to chat amiably at the march, where Sanders looped an arm through her elbow. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Sen. Amy Klobuchar each locked elbows with Biden.
The sight of Sanders and Warren linked arm-in-arm delighted Lisa Ray Clarkson, a retired teacher from Norfolk, Virginia, who was at the march.
“That means they have gotten over their differences and the Democratic Party is reuniting,” Clarkson said as she walked alongside the procession.
The marchers soon arrived at the Statehouse, where a Confederate flag once flew over the dome. As a recording of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was broadcast over a loudspeaker, a crowd of several thousand people converged on the Capitol grounds.
“You’re going to freeze,” Biden said to a woman seated near a sidewalk as he passed by. (It was a chilly day by South Carolina standards — 37 degrees.)
Beforehand, at the first high-profile event on a busy day of celebrations in South Carolina and Iowa, which both hold crucial presidential nominating votes in February, several candidates told a breakfast gathering of predominantly black voters that they were committed to advancing King’s legacy and that defeating President Donald Trump in November was a crucial step toward that goal
“My campaign revolves around the image of the first day that the sun comes up over South Carolina and our country and Donald Trump is no longer the president of the United States,” former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, told the Columbia Urban League’s annual King breakfast. “I raise the image of that sunrise because it will bring forth the burning question Dr. King posed in the summer of 1967: Where do we go from here?”
“Because on that day our country will be even more polarized and torn up than it is now,” said Buttigieg, who is one of the top-polling candidates in Iowa but is struggling in South Carolina and among black voters.
He urged action to combat disparate treatment by race in the health care system and to address environmental pollution disproportionately affecting African Americans, who make up a majority of the Democratic primary electorate in the state.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire businessman who polled at 15% in South Carolina in a recent Fox News survey, tying him with Sanders for second place, called on Americans to “channel Dr. King” and take action against a government that he described as hostile to the hungry and others in need.
“Every political issue that I see in the United States of America has a subtext that’s race,” Steyer said. “It may be awkward. It may be uncomfortable, but we have to have that conversation. I believe that out of narrative comes policy.”
Former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, the only black candidate still in the Democratic field, took a different tack, telling the breakfast audience, “If we are really going to deliver a future for our children and grandchildren consistent with the values of equality, opportunity and fair play, to which Dr. King and the Urban League served as examples, then we’re going to have to start rejecting false choices.”
“Prosperity and justice can live alongside each other,” he said. “The notion that you have to hate business to be a social justice warrior or hate police to believe black lives matter are ridiculous.”
Biden, who holds solid leads in South Carolina polls, said that Trump’s conduct and record in office — including his remarks that gave a boost to white supremacists after the Charlottesville, Virginia, rally in 2017 — have led to an “inflection point in the civil rights movement.”
“We have a president who embraces white supremacists, who rips families away at the border,” Biden said. “We have to work together twice as hard to get out of the situation we find ourselves in.”
“God willing, we can turn four years of Donald Trump into an historical aberration,” he added.
The breakfast, a fundraiser for the Columbia Urban League, drew about 400 people to a large meeting hall at the Brookland Baptist Church. As the crowd went through buffet lines of fruit, eggs, bacon and grits, music played as Biden and the other candidates milled about, conversing with various supporters in the hall. Biden drew particular attention.
After the South Carolina events, most of the candidates plan to fly quickly to Iowa to attend the 2020 Iowa Brown & Black Democratic Presidential Forum on Monday afternoon. Iowa holds the first presidential nominating vote in two weeks, on Feb. 3. South Carolina votes Feb. 29.
At a breakfast honoring King in Washington, D.C., former President Bill Clinton delivered a message casting the diversity of the United States as one of the country’s biggest strengths. But he also noted that a diverse nation only functions well if everyone follows “the same set of rules,” making an oblique nod to Trump as well as Republican efforts to make it harder for some communities of color to cast their ballots.
“America, at its best, is a country of inclusive tribalism,” he told an audience of black leaders, public officials and activists. “Our churches, our synagogues, our mosques or temples, we like diversity but it only works if you think our common humanity matters more.”
“There are 15 issues we should be fighting about but at the core is universal easy access to vote where the votes count,” he said. “And a vigorous attempt to stop foreign influence.”
Clinton was in Washington to accept an award at a breakfast hosted by the National Action Network, the organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton.