- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2015

CHARLESTON, S.C. — She has mastered the art of affecting a folksy twang when speaking to Southern crowds and her husband once boasted that he was the first black president, but Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton has a long way to go to win over black voters crucial to victory in South Carolina’s early primary.

Mrs. Clinton, who on Wednesday will make her second visit to the Palmetto State, moved early and forcefully to shore up support of black voters, but that Democratic bloc has yet to coalesce behind her. That includes young blacks who say they have lost faith in politics after their experience with President Obama.

Muhammad Rasheed, 30, let out a long sigh when asked about Mrs. Clinton.

“I used to feel strongly about politics, but I’m not into it like I used to be,” he said. “I really just don’t believe in the government anymore.”

Mr. Rasheed, who graduated from The Citadel with a degree in political science and works for the Upward Bound program that helps prepare low-income high school students in Charleston for college, said he enthusiastically voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 and 2012.

He said he wasn’t sure whether he would show up for South Carolina’s second-in-the-nation primary next year.

He was not disappointed with Mr. Obama as much as he was with all of Washington, he said, adding that he had come to view the presidency as “just a face for the nation.”

Mr. Rasheed’s apathy underscores the challenge facing Mrs. Clinton as she attempts to energize black voters and the rest of the Democratic base to turn out and vote for her.

South Carolina showed a spike in voter participation — driven by black turnout — in the past two presidential election cycles and set a record high in 2008. Then came the dramatic decline in turnout for the 2014 midterm elections.

The low turnout in 2014 helped fuel widespread Democratic losses, including in every U.S. Senate race where Mrs. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, campaigned for their party’s candidates.

Midterm elections typically have lower turnout, but South Carolina’s voter participation in 2014 was the lowest in 40 years.

Recognizing the ebb of interest in South Carolina, the Clinton team launched an aggressive effort to identify potential Democratic voters and build a database for get-out-the-vote operations, said party officials familiar with campaign activities.

The state is important to the Clinton campaign for several reasons.

South Carolina will test the strength of Mrs. Clinton’s message with black voters, a bloc she needs to turn out in other primary contests and in the general election. The campaign also views South Carolina — where Mrs. Clinton should have a built-in advantage — as a firewall to stop any surge by her more liberal opponents in the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary.

The Clinton campaign was the first to open an office in South Carolina this year and will have several more in coming weeks. Mrs. Clinton’s South Carolina team has held more than 120 events, including house parties, phone banks and canvassing, and has established a presence at weekly farmer’s markets, the Eastover Parade and Barbeque Festival, the Artisphere International Arts Festival in Greenville and other events.

Jane Pulling, a member of the South Carolina Democratic Party Executive Committee, said she was confident that the Clinton campaign would get black voters excited about the election and about turning out for Mrs. Clinton.

“I think the feeling is that this is her time,” said Mrs. Pulling. “And if she is the nominee, she’ll be making history as the first female president.”

The focus on grass-roots organizing shows that Mrs. Clinton is not taking South Carolina for granted, despite her huge lead in polls and standing as her party’s all-but-inevitable presidential nominee.

A poll of likely South Carolina Democratic primary voters released this week showed Mrs. Clinton leading the pack with 56 percent, followed by Vice President Joseph R. Biden with 15 percent and Sen. Bernard Sanders with 10 percent.

Rounding out the field were former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley with 3 percent, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia with 2 percent and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee with 1 percent.

Mrs. Clinton began wooing black voters as soon as she launched her campaign. Although she avoided taking positions on most issues, she made an exception by addressing police relations with the black community, calling for the end of mass incarceration of black men, and proposing an expansion of voting rights and crackdown on voter ID laws that she said Republicans used to block minorities from casting ballots.

“She’s excellent,” said Lydia Garnder, a 58-year-old black voter in North Charleston.

Mrs. Gardner said she wouldn’t even think about backing another candidate. But she also said she probably wouldn’t vote.

Mrs. Gardner said she turned out to vote for Mr. Obama in 2008 only because someone from the campaign showed up at her door and urged her to go to the polls.

“A prayer does a lot more than voting,” she said.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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