Clinton Stumps Where Her Party Said to Be in "Shambles"

Clinton Stumps Where Her Party Said to Be in "Shambles"
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Hillary Clinton concluded a half-hour campaign speech here Wednesday when a longtime Clinton friend, standing in the wings, offered predictions to a reporter about the presidential race:

The former first lady will win the South Carolina Democratic primary in a landslide, securing 75 percent or more of the black vote; she will likely lose the Palmetto State and much of the South in a general election contest as the Democratic nominee; and she and her husband will shake off controversies involving the Clinton Foundation’s benefactors and her State Department emails.

Don Fowler, a veteran of South Carolina politics and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee when Bill Clinton was re-elected president in 1996, chatted amiably with RCP and other news outlets corralled inside a roped-off section of a Marriott hotel ballroom.

As the former secretary of state posed for pictures with members of the audience and spoke with anyone (other than reporters) who sought her company, it fell to Fowler, wearing a Hillary campaign lapel sticker, to field a few media queries.

“Democrats don’t do well in the South in the general election,” Fowler reminded RCP, acknowledging the discouraging trend he’s witnessed over a lifetime in party politics.

As the current chair of South Forward, a political action committee and nonprofit dedicated to regaining traction for Democratic candidates and Democratic state parties in the South, Fowler is helping to raise money and momentum to combat the GOP’s ascendance throughout a region that appears to be fielding at least half a dozen Republican presidential contenders. The party also dominates governorships and state legislatures in the South.

In the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections, respectively, Bill Clinton and Al Gore captured six of 14 Southern states. In 2008, Barack Obama won three of them. By 2012, it was two.

About two months ago, Fowler, now 79, spoke with former President Clinton, asking the former Arkansas governor if he could enlist his help in bolstering the Democratic Party throughout the South, or at least from South Carolina to Arkansas. “That’s kind of hush-hush,” he said of their conversation, adding he’s supposed to follow up with a note.  

“The Democratic Party in the South is just in shambles,” Fowler lamented.

Making her first swing of the 2016 cycle into the region, Hillary Clinton made no overt claim to “deep Southern roots.” She didn’t have to. Her hosts with the South Carolina House Democratic Women’s Caucus and the state’s Democratic Women’s Council did that for her.

But by dropping her “g’s” a few times, praising both her husband and President Obama, and hailing a renowned local restaurant owned by an African-American woman who hosted a Clinton roundtable at the eatery, the former New York senator tried to score points with a mixed-race, mixed-gender crowd of roughly 200 people.

“I do know how hard this job I’m seeking is,” she reassured listeners after discussing her six-point agenda to tackle pay inequities among women, especially low-income women and women of color.

“I don’t shrink from a fight,” she boasted.

Modern presidents have walked into the White House as vigorous men and departed gray and aged, Clinton observed, without naming names. But if she’s elected president, America will not see her “turn white in the White House,” she said.

She was referring to her famously evolving hair. The audience laughed and applauded.

“I may not be the youngest candidate in the race, but I have one big advantage,” she said with a grin. “I’ve been coloring my hair for years!”

The hair joke as a sisterhood motif, coming at the end of a sober speech about America’s troubles, about battling Republicans, and after a long story about losing to Obama and then being “proud” to work beside him, revived the crowd.

Many in the audience surrounded Clinton afterwards to tell her they worked for her previous presidential campaign. Some said they have signed up again. Most had not seen her up-close since Obama trounced Clinton in the 2008 primary that got so much attention.

Clinton hewed to populist economic themes Wednesday, leaving aside her recently prominent stances on immigration, incarceration reforms, policing, gay marriage and a campaign finance overhaul. She did not bring up the military or national security, despite South Carolina’s recognized attention to both.

She wants to expand her grassroots organization, which she hopes will secure primary turnout among Democratic women, young people and black voters. Her team says the campaign is exiting a “ramp-up” phase and moving beyond early primary states to expand its geographical range, organizational intensity, fundraising, and the size of rallies and events.

In 2008, Bill Clinton’s criticisms of Obama in South Carolina were widely perceived as racially tinged and over the line, which angered black voters and hurt his wife’s then-struggling bid to win delegates and super delegates.

But Fowler dismissed the perception of collateral damage that needed to be repaired. The suggestion that she “has something to make up with the African-American community is totally erroneous,” he insisted.

Asked if he believed Bill Clinton should help his wife’s campaign in South Carolina, or steer clear, Fowler said he’d tell the 42nd president, “Do what she wants. … I suspect she wants him to help.”

The current media and Capitol Hill scrutiny about the Clintons’ speaking fees, the former secretary of state’s private emails and the couple’s vast array of allies, benefactors and hangers-on won’t impact the election results, the former DNC chair said.

“They have been after both of them for 30 years, and other than the Monica Lewinsky thing, you know how much they’ve gotten?” he asked. He curled his right hand into a circle. Zero.

“It’s a distraction,” he said.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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