Democratic Candidates Hoping to Woo Black Voters, Gather at S.C. Fish Fry

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Nearly every Democratic presidential candidate converged in South Carolina on Friday to pay homage to the state party’s most powerful political kingmaker and court black voters and women — two of its crucial voting blocs. In the case of Joseph R. Biden Jr., this will be his campaign’s first opportunity to gauge whether he dented his image with African-Americans by invoking the names of two segregationists to praise the Senate’s bygone “civility.”

The 2020 hopefuls were drawn by the annual state party convention here. It is the first major Democratic gathering this year in a state that is the fourth early-nominating state to vote but which represents the first test of the candidates’ appeal with black voters.

But before they appeared in the convention hall on Saturday, most of the contenders showed up in the steamy parking lot of a children’s museum to shower praise on Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, taste a little fried whiting with hot sauce and, in some cases, even try out their dance moves.

The candidates were only allotted a minute each to address the mostly black crowd at the fish fry.

Mr. Clyburn is the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, an influential figure in this state’s Democratic primaries and, most recently, has perhaps been Mr. Biden’s most important ally.

The South Carolina lawmaker defended the former vice president the day after he recalled working with the former senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, both Democrats and unrepentant racists. And even before he kicked off his long-running convention weekend party — officially titled “Jim Clyburn’s World Famous Fish Fry” — Mr. Clyburn again spoke up for Mr. Biden.

“I think it’s a little bit ludicrous to blame someone for working with people you don’t agree with,” Mr. Clyburn said in a pre-taped CNN interview that aired Friday afternoon.

But other black Democrats in South Carolina were more uneasy about Mr. Biden’s remarks.

Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a longtime state representative, urged Mr. Biden at a private meeting he held with black Democratic leaders Friday afternoon to show contrition.

“I whispered in his ear that I wished he would just apologize and get it over with,” Ms. Cobb-Hunter recalled, noting that although Mr. Biden displayed little reaction, she did not think he appreciated the advice.

“The longer it drags on the more of a challenge it becomes, which is why I suggested he simply apologize and move on,” she said, adding that Mr. Biden was generally warmly received by what was a friendly group and that she did not hear anybody else raise the issue during the half hour she was at the private meeting.

Mr. Biden’s longtime allies here voiced doubts that his comments would leave a lasting mark, but agreed that they were not helpful — particularly with younger voters who never knew segregation.

“If I was in the campaign I’d probably be pulling my hair out this week, but I don’t think they’ll do any lasting damage,” said the Rev. Joseph A. Darby, a pastor and supporter of Mr. Biden.

Each of the candidates here — Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., were the only two not in attendance Friday — were planning to address delegates at the convention tomorrow, which is also being broadcast on MSNBC.

In addition to the convention, most of the candidates were also planning to address a nearby forum on Saturday that’s being sponsored by Planned Parenthood which is expected to draw a few hundred, mostly female activists. In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary here, over 60 percent of voters were women.

While South Carolina has not passed an abortion ban in the fashion of Alabama and Georgia, abortion rights activists here are deeply concerned that a measure banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected that passed in the state House this year could become law next year.