As the Democratic primary season ends, the race tightens

in Bill Rauch/Contributors/Voices by

By Bill Rauch

Hillary Clinton’s 21 point trouncing by Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire sets up a tough test of her “South Carolina firewall” in the upcoming February 27 Democratic Party presidential primary here.

Early polls showed Clinton, formerly a First Lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State leading U.S. Senator Sanders by 2:1 and even 3:1 margins, but pastors of African-American churches here now say the race is still “wide open,” and that they will “give Sanders a look.”

“Some of the things he has been saying for years – police brutality, the widening wealth and poverty gap, his plans for improving education and raising the minimum wage – will be beneficial to him here, but he has to have people who will interpret his message and get it out,” Rev. Kenneth Hodges at the Tabernacle Baptist Church on Craven Street in Beaufort says. “Right now he doesn’t have enough interpreters,” Hodges added. “But what I’m seeing is the more Sanders reaches out the more of a preacher following he gets.”

In the South there is no group more crucial to the success of Democratic Party hopefuls.

A clergyman whose influence extends well beyond the walls of his historic church, Hodges represents South Carolina House District 121, the district that contains a little of Beaufort, St. Helena Island and much of the surrounding area inland towards Walterboro. Rep. Hodges has not as yet endorsed a candidate in the race, but says he will do so. “South Carolina is a red state,” he explains. “The time of our influence is now, not in November.”

Perceiving the mounting challenge, the long-planned Clinton South Carolina juggernaut had already swung into high gear even before the New Hampshire results were known. A Clinton loss in South Carolina — a breach of “the firewall,” which is code for states where large percentages of the Democratic Party electorate are African-American — would be devastating to her prospects of gaining her party’s nomination.

Concluding from the recent Iowa caucus results that Clinton has work to do with college-aged voters, last week the Clinton campaign sent a wave of celebrities into South Carolina colleges on her behalf while the candidate barnstormed in New Hampshire. Actress and film director Angela Bassett and television host Vivica Fox, for example, led Clinton get-out-the-vote rallies at South Carolina State University, Claflin University, Vorhees College and Denmark Tech.

Surrogate-in-Chief Bill Clinton was also in the state, according to the Orangeburg Times and Democrat. Hodges has met with him, as he has also with both major candidates. “The President’s message in these small groups is very focused,” he said. “It is ‘Hillary has been there. She delivers. There is not a lot of risk.’ And Bill Clinton is very well regarded here. He is a factor that weighs heavily against Sanders.”

The differences on the issues between the two Democratic Party candidates are stark — much starker than on the GOP side — with Clinton saying she’ll improve upon the status quo and Sanders saying basically the system’s broken and it needs a top-to-bottom reboot.

On health care, for example, Clinton says, “I’ll defend the Affordable Care Act, build on its successes, and go even further to reduce costs.”

Sanders, on the other hand, would scrap the system and start again. “Health care is a right,” he says, “not a privilege. The time has come for a Medicare-for-all universal health care system that provides every American with affordable, quality care.”

Similarly, on national defense and the threat of Islamic extremism, Clinton’s campaign website says, “As president, she’ll ensure the United States maintains the best-trained, best-equipped, and strongest military the world has ever known.”

But Sanders has an ad running on Facebook that says, “Do we substantially increase military spending and prepare for endless war in the middle-east, or do we make college affordable for all Americans, regardless of income? My answer: I will soon be introducing legislation that will make public colleges and universities tuition free.”

Or on the federal minimum wage, now $7.25 per hour, Sanders says more than double it to $15 per hour over the next few years. Clinton says take it to $12. In other days Hillary’s $12 proposal would have sounded over-the-moon excessive, but next to Bernie she’s a cheapskate.

Doubling take-home pay, free health care and free college? There’s a lot there to like, especially for voters who feel the American Dream left them behind.

We are in for a horse race.

And why shouldn’t we be in this unlikeliest of years? This race pits a former U.S. Senator from New York who was born in Chicago against a sitting U.S. Senator from Vermont who was born in Brooklyn. That race’s winner, it appears today, wins the right to go up against a former casino owner who was born in Queens but who now calls Manhattan home, and perhaps an independent run by another Manhattan businessman who it happens was born in Boston but who has served three terms as Mayor of New York.

But New York is a long way from Florence, Orangeburg and Anderson.

The key in the upcoming Democratic Party primary here, according to several preachers, may well come down to this. According to one, “Even though ‘trust’ may be an issue for Hillary elsewhere, it is not here. We trust her more. But we do not want to be taken for granted.”