Harris caps off SC charge ahead of Dems' first-in-the-nation primary

ORANGEBURG, South Carolina — In her fourth visit to the state this year, Vice President Kamala Harris reminded voters at South Carolina State University of their newly influential perch.

“South Carolina, you are the first primary in the nation, and President [Joe] Biden and I are counting on you,” Harris said, standing before a stage stamped with “First in the Nation.”

Harris’ get-out-the-vote rally on Friday — where she was joined by Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison — caps off the campaign’s first sanctioned Democratic primary contest.

The president is expected to cruise to victory here on Saturday, facing only nominal challenges from Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) and self-help author Marianne Williamson. But the contest still drew significant attention from the Biden campaign, which pumped more than $400,000 into ads and sent high-level surrogates to blanket the state over the last month.

Biden’s aides and allies view Saturday’s primary as an opportunity to show Black voters, the core of the party’s base, that they are prioritizing their support. They also hope a strong victory here could quiet concerns about Biden’s standing with Black voters, even as recent public polling shows Biden underperforming with the key bloc by double digits compared to his 2020 results.

In her speech, Harris ticked through a series of policy accomplishments, including canceling student loan debt, lowering the cost of insulin and increasing federal funding to historically Black colleges and universities.

“Over the past three years, President Biden and I have lowered cost, created opportunity and are building an economy that works for working people,” Harris said. “Although we have more work to do, let us be clear, America’s economy continues to be the strongest in the world.”

She also took on former President Donald Trump, calling out the “profound threat he poses to our democracy and to our freedoms.”

“Who sits in the White House — it matters,” Harris said.

But given the uncompetitive nature of the primary, it’s less clear how much energy the Biden campaign will generate from voters.

“I don’t expect we’ll have turnout like we’ve had over the last several years because those were open, contested primaries,” Clyburn told POLITICO in an interview last month. “I suspect — a good strong 65 percent of the electorate [for Biden].”

But Biden’s performance in South Carolina on Saturday won’t necessarily answer questions about his challenges with young Black voters, who are less likely to participate in a primary and are voicing the greatest discontent with the president in public polling.

In interviews with a half-dozen state legislators, they said Biden’s challenge isn’t his agenda, but educating voters about it. South Carolina state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis rattled off a list of policy achievements, from student loan forgiveness to low unemployment numbers.

“It’s not a matter of whether he’s done enough. It’s about putting that in a message people understand and is digestible,” Pendarvis said. He acknowledged that it’s “frustrating” that it hasn’t broken through, adding it will “take some time” to sink in.

“They know they have to message better,” Pendarvis said. “It’s a challenge, so that’s why you see a significant presence here in South Carolina.”

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