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S.C. Democratic chairman walks fine line in primary

A voting booth set up for the South

A voting booth set up for the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary is seen at a polling station at the First Pentecostal Holiness Church in Clinton, S.C., on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. Credit: Bloomberg

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Jaime Harrison, the South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, has had a dicey time in the job of late.

His state’s primary Saturday pits former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — who has deep political ties to South Carolina — against firebrand Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is trying take the party harder left.

“You just have to be as fair as you can,” he said in an interview Saturday. “It’s up to them to persuade the voters.”

He doesn’t dismiss the claims and hopes of Sanders’ supporters that the polls showing Clinton with a double-digit lead in South Carolina aren’t reflecting the reality on the ground in South Carolina.

“When we look at the numbers in 2008,” he said of that South Carolina primary, “there were a lot of people who made up their minds very late. … A lot of working people have so much going on in their lives that they don’t get an opportunity to really focus on this until it’s right there.

“So I bet there are still a lot of people out there who didn’t know what they were going to do and now are trying to figure out how they will move forward,” Harrison said in an interview.

In 2008, a newcomer to national politics — then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama — made a surprise win in the South Carolina primary, doubling the vote of Clinton, who was once the strong front-runner. Obama took that spark and won the nomination handily.

“I think competition is always good,” said Harrison, an African-American raised in South Carolina and who worked in Congress. Obama “became better as a candidate” because of the strong challenge by Clinton, he said.

Harrison is a super delegate to the Democratic national convention this summer where the party could face a nasty fight for the nomination.

“I’m not committed yet,” said Harrison, 40. “My super delegate vote will go to the winner of the South Carolina primary.”

Clinton has 502 delegates to just 70 for Sanders. Clinton is also projected in polls to take South Carolina, where 53 delegates are at stake; and most of the delegates from the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries dominated by Southern states with large African-American populations. At stake will be about 865 delegates. A candidate will need to win 2,383 delegates at the national convention this summer to seal the nomination.

Super Tuesday primaries include those in Alabama, Arkansas where Clinton was active as Gov. Bill Clinton’s wife; Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Tennessee and Vermont, where Sanders has been a longtime U.S. senator and former mayor of Burlington.

On Saturday, Harrison focused on the common foe — the Republican candidates who he said are engaged in a “reality show stuff” full of insults and bravado.

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