Even before the Democratic candidates hit the stage at Winthrop University Friday night, the presidential campaign transformed the campus into a political-palooza, a combination TV set and carnival.
Television production vans lined campus streets. Chanting supporters jockeyed for attention. TV reporters talked to their cameras. And Democrats loved every minute of it.
“This is the home of the Democratic universe, at least this night,” said Jaime Harrison, chair of the state Democratic Party.
They didn’t have the universe to themselves.
As Democrats set up for a program in the student center, Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky spoke to about 200 people in an adjoining room. He was flanked by U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, Hillary Clinton’s adversary from the Benghazi hearings.
The national spotlight actually fell on Rock Hill and Winthrop for 24 hours. MSNBC, which broadcast Friday’s forum with Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, started it all off Thursday night with host Rachel Maddow broadcasting her show from a downtown pub.
“She mentioned Rock Hill about a hundred times,” Mayor Doug Echols said Friday. “It’s hard to put a price tag on that.”
For students, it was a chance to see the presidential selection process up close.
“This is Civic Engagement 101 for our students and our county,” said Eddie Lee, a history professor and mayor of York, S.C. “Winthrop will be a destination on the map of presidential politics for the rest of 2015 and 2016.”
Here are scenes from the day the campaign trail led to Rock Hill:
The soggy front lawn of Byrnes Auditorium turned into a stage for dueling rallies of Clinton and Sanders supporters.
“When I say ‘Madame,’ you say ‘president,’ ” Lillie Parks barked to one group of Clinton supporters.
Nearby Sanders backers joined in shouts of “Feel the Bern!”
Clinton organizer Sydney Watnick huddled with a circle of supporters. “We’re going to scream at the top of our lungs,” she told them, beginning a chant of “HRC! HRC!”
At one point “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, from a set in front of Byrnes, turned to the crowd before cutting to Maddow. “Will you quiet down in the back and let Rachel talk?” he said.
Earlier, a reporter stood near the stage about to interview Winthrop political scientist Scott Huffmon.
“The circus,” Huffmon said, “never ends.”
‘Running against history’
With a Winthrop Poll this week showing Clinton with the support of 71 percent support of S.C. Democrats, it would seem that U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn had every excuse to endorse her.
But Clyburn, the state’s only Democrat in Congress, said he would remain steadfastly neutral. Even so, he alluded to Clinton’s background as first lady of Arkansas and said she “cut her teeth in Southern politics.”
“My good friends Bernie Sanders and Gov. O’Malley seem to be running against history,” he told reporters.
Winning the South
In an afternoon forum hosted by S.C. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, Huffmon explained why the South is critical to presidential contenders.
Because of its size and demographic makeup, “the South is the crown jewel of the electoral college,” Huffmon said. “If the Democrats field a candidate who can crack the South, in at least two states, the Democrat becomes president. Period.”
And if a Republican contender sweeps the South, the path to the presidency is clear and, historically, inevitable.
“The make-or-break region for the presidency is your region, it’s our region, it’s the South,” he said.
Shifting demographics might help the Democratic Party make inroads in South Carolina, the first primary in the South and often the tone-setter for the general election, said Lee, the historian.
With impassioned speeches that yielded even more passionate applause, a panel of political and religious leaders gathered inside an auditorium where they railed against race and class division.
“We must deal with race and class upfront in every debate – not on the side-stage but (in) every debate,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP and leader of the Moral Monday movement.
Laura Cahue, member of Somos South Carolina and Young Immigrants in Action, called for minorities to resist segregation and division.
“It’s not a competition to see who has suffered the most,” she said. “We are all victimized by the model of being fragmented into different groups.”
“We’ve got to amplify moral voices,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. once pastored. “That is the only way we’re going to win the South.”
Paul elicited a chorus of hoots from Clinton supporters when he appeared on “Hardball” and called the Democratic presidential candidate a “neo-con” whose views aligned with those of GOP U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
He called her foreign policy views “a recipe for disaster.”
Earlier, Paul took aim at what he called an “unholy alliance” between Republicans and Democrats who spend excessively and exacerbate the national debt.
Taking the stage to raucous applause at the student center, Paul blasted Sanders’ socialist ideals.
“There is nothing for free – there is no free lunch,” Paul said. “If someone offers you something for free, treat them like a drug dealer and walk the other way.”
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