COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Even before he announces whether he's a 2020 presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders is working to avoid the drubbing that South Carolina's African-American voters handed him in 2016.
A day after speaking at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally in the state capital on Monday, Sanders stayed through Tuesday for three more events in which African-American audiences were receptive to a message that hewed largely to his 2016 Democratic presidential platform. But the Vermont independent got personal even as he pitched free college tuition and a higher minimum wage, recounting repeatedly that he joined King's 1963 March on Washington and calling the late civil rights leader a "major political influence on my thinking."
Asked Tuesday at historically black Benedict College about marching with King, Sanders joked with students that "this kind of dates me a little bit" and added that it "was one of the important days in my life."
For the famously cantankerous senator, who labored to connect with black voters during his first White House bid, the more intimate touches in this week's South Carolina swing showed that he knows he can't neglect the bellwether early-voting state if he runs again. With one leading black candidate already declared in California Sen. Kamala Harris, and a second potential contender in New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Sanders would face even stiffer competition here in 2020 than he did in 2016, when Hillary Clinton brought strong ties to African-American communities.
What Sanders offered this week, ahead of South Carolina visits by Harris and another fellow 2020 rival, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, was also an interest in going beyond the state's traditional Democratic strongholds, though it wasn't without a few stumbles along the way. He visited an African Methodist Episcopal church in the city of Florence on Monday night but left before the service was over.
Amanda Loveday, a former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said Sanders' early exit in Florence was a "wrong" step in a state where authenticity is critical.
"You have to be in South Carolina and actually be in South Carolina," Loveday said, "and I worry that he did not show that" fully in Florence.
Sanders also faced logistical questions as he arrived in Charleston on Tuesday night. Brady Quirk-Garvan, chairman of the Charleston County Democrats, noted on Twitter that the senator was more than an hour late and "didn't ask the local Dems to help promote."
"I'm no expert in Democratic primaries," Quirk-Garvan added, "but this doesn't seem like a helpful re-boot..."
Sanders senior adviser Josh Orton pushed back at Quirk-Garvan's interpretation, posting a picture of the crowded Charleston event and tweeting that "the ENERGIZED crowd of Dems and others here chanted something. Let's just say it was...an encouragement."
To an extent, Sanders' tougher job in 2020's first-in-the-south primary stems from his stunning 2016 success. Many of the unabashedly liberal policies he championed in that presidential race are now part of the Democratic DNA, rendering his agenda somewhat less unique.
The 77-year-old senator acknowledged that fact Tuesday during a meeting with the South Carolina state legislature's Black Caucus. Sanders told the lawmakers that he has no plans to officially join the Democratic Party even as he touted Democratic platform changes made in response to his campaign.
"Yeah, we lost. But our ideas won," Sanders said. "They are the ideas of America."
Xavier Duffy, a junior at Benedict College, where Sanders visited, said he supported Clinton three years ago but "would vote for (Sanders) this time."
Praising Sanders for offering "a template instead of just an inspirational speech," Duffy said that trailblazing candidacies from Harris and potentially Booker were compelling but that young voters are "keen enough to" go beyond identity and ask 2020 candidates, "What do you have to offer?"
Symone Sanders, former press secretary for Sen. Sanders' 2016 campaign, said in an interview that she's "not surprised" to see him back in the state early, adding that both the senator and aides "wish he spent more time in South Carolina" during his first run. She is not related to the senator.
Even if other Democratic primary contenders share some of his central ideas, Sanders' higher name recognition and conspicuously different style may yet prove advantageous. Booker wove his trademark oratorical sweep into Monday remarks honoring King, while Sanders echoed the sentiment of other rally speakers by bluntly calling Trump a "racist."
And when Sanders addressed South Carolina state lawmakers, he again aligned his goals with King's pursuit of both racial and economic fairness.
"Whether you're black or you're white or you're Latino, you need health care," Sanders said. "You want your kids to get a good education. You want clean drinking water. ... If Dr. King had remained alive, he would have had success in bringing people together around that kind of agenda."
Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.