Democratic Presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of the State Hillary Clinton holds a forum at Greenville Technical College on July 23, 2015 in Greenville, South Carolina.
Sean Rayford—Getty Images
September 30, 2015 6:51 PM EDT

Once the clear Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton now faces serious trouble in the first two states to vote. In Iowa, liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders has overtaken her in some recent polls, while in New Hampshire, he’s ahead by as many as 16 points.

Still, Clinton has shown few signs of doubt.

“I feel very good about where we are and what we’re doing,” Clinton said last Wednesday in an interview with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board. “I have absolutely no doubt that on both the Democratic side and on the Republican side there will be ups and downs, but I feel we very comfortable and very confident that we are well on the path to securing the nomination.”

That confidence may come from Clinton’s position in South Carolina, the fourth primary contest. As Clinton has lost steam in Iowa and New Hampshire, her lead in South Carolina has remained in the double digits, and her allies believe that it could be the place where her fortunes turn around if things go poorly in the first contests.

South Carolina will also presage a number of electoral fights throughout the South on Super Tuesday, when Clinton surrogates hope a slew of victories made possible by the support of black voters ends Sanders’ run.

“South Carolina appears to be shaping up to be the make or break for the whole race,” said Bob Coble, former mayor of Columbia and a Clinton endorser with extensive ties in the state. “With Iowa and New Hampshire being close and Sanders ahead, it’s going to be a pivotal state for the Democrats.”

Clinton has invested heavily in South Carolina, repeatedly sending surrogates and readying an infrastructure in the state as her campaign launched in April. Marlon Marshall, Clinton’s director of state campaigns and political engagement, was in the state this week overseeing organizing operations.

The Democratic political establishment in the Palmetto State overwhelmingly backs Clinton, with two former governors, party leaders, state lawmakers and some 80 local elected officials lining up to endorse her. She has over 2,500 active volunteers in the state and held over 800 grassroots campaign events. Despite state party officials traditionally staying neutral, the first and second vice chairs of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Kaye Koonce and Melissa Watson, openly back her.

Her support in South Carolina, however, is not ironclad. Sanders has expanded his operation in the state and has shown a knack for garnering support in Iowa and New Hampshire without much establishment backing. Sanders’ staff is now double the size of Clinton’s. Vice President Joe Biden has a long relationship with black voters in the state and could upend the campaign calculus if he jumps into the race.

“If Joe Biden gets in the race it’s a new day… He has a lot of friends down there,” Rep. Clyburn, who is staying neutral in the primary, said in an interview. “And if [Clinton] loses Iowa and New Hampshire, it will be very, very difficult. Losing one of them will change calculations.”

The key to Clinton’s operation in the state is her appeal among black voters. She traveled to South Carolina when she began her career working with the Children’s Defense Fund and made political connections in the state as first lady of Arkansas. Although she lost the state by a wide margin to Barack Obama in 2008, the political wounds appear to have healed, while Sanders has not made any headway. A recent CBS/YouGov poll shows Clinton leading Sanders in the state 46% to 23%, better than her national average. Among black voters, she was ahead by 52% to 4%.

Demographically, the Democratic electorate in the state overwhelmingly favors Clinton. Some 61% of voters in the 2008 primary were women, and 55% were African American; black woman form the core of her support in the state and are particularly active in political organizing.

“Clinton’s support in the African-American community is real,” said Diane Sumpter, an African-American businesswoman in Columbia. “We know her. We know her from her race the last time we know her from when her husband ran and was extremely popular and we just continued to follow her and the things she believes in: equal pay, technical schools, Planned Parenthood.”

“Bernie Sanders is not even on my radar,” Sumpter added. “He’s not even in the game, in my mind.”

Clinton has focused much of her outreach on black churches and among black leaders, and spoken on issues that resonate particularly in South Carolina, like expanding Medicaid, mass incarceration, criminal justice reform and equal pay.

Clinton and her aides say they are following Obama’s playbook in the state in 2008, when Clinton lost in a landslide despite being significantly ahead before the Iowa caucus. She’s adopting an organizational model based on volunteer outreach that helped Obama win eight years ago.

Her supporters insist that Obama’s victory had nothing to do with Clinton’s weaknesses, but the Clintons ruffled feathers that year with a series of remarks that stirred up accusations of racial insensitivity. Hillary appeared in an interview in January to give credit to Lyndon Johnson over Martin Luther King for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bill Clinton then seemed to dismiss Obama’s South Carolina win and attribute it to his race, saying that Jesse Jackson had won twice in the state.

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Bill Clinton has also clashed with Rep. Clyburn, perhaps the most prominent Democratic politician from the state. The day after Hillary Clinton lost the South Carolina primary, Bill called Clyburn at 2:15 in the morning, according to the Clyburn’s 2014 memoir.

“If you bastards want a fight, you damn well will get one,” Clinton reportedly told Clyburn on a the surprise phone call attacking to the congressman, who officially stayed neutral during the South Carolina primary. Clyburn writes that Clinton again “exploded, used the word ‘bastard’ again, and accused me of causing her defeat and injecting race into the contest.

Clyburn, who is staying neutral through the primary, said in an interview he feels “no animus” toward the Clintons. “Passions were high,” said Clyburn. “I don’t blame him for supporting his spouse. I do the same thing for mine and my spouse does the same thing for me.”

As for the Clintons’ statements in 2008, “People are willing to forgive in 2008 for Bill’s comments because there’s a long history there of them helping out the African-American community,” said Democratic party vice chair Melissa Watson.

Clinton has visited the state three times, and sent surrogates including James Carville, campaign chair John Podesta and former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean to the state on separate occasions. This weekend, Alexis Herman, the former secretary of labor under Bill Clinton will campaign for Clinton, discussing equal pay and women’s health.

Clinton’s July visit with South Carolina mayors led to a “Mayors for Hillary” coalition that includes 80 local elected officials. And the campaign has tapped a network of 400 women in all 46 counties of the state as another avenue of targeting community leaders. She’s due to appear with the NAACP at the end of October in Charleston.

A strong Clinton victory in South Carolina on February 27th could lead to a string of wins on the Super Tuesday states like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and others with large black populations.

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“Black voters have a very strong, real affection for her,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who advised Howard Dean and other presidential campaigns. “If [Bernie Sanders] can’t solve that, my guess is we’ll all be looking back at this like we looked at Dean and Cranston,” he added, referencing Alan Cranston, a progressive Democrat who ran a failed campaign for the 1984 presidential nomination.

Sanders has now dramatically boosted the size of his operation in the state, with a total of around 30 staff by the end of the month. Office workers stay up until 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., working the phones and organizing for the day.

In the last 10 days, Sanders’ staff and volunteers have knocked on 10,000 doors in African-American communities in an effort to knock a dent into Clinton’s support. In the three days Sanders has been in South Carolina, he has attracted crowds totaling 16,000.

Sanders gained a key supporter this month when Christale Spain, a top deputy in the South Carolina Democratic Party with key connections throughout the state, left to join his campaign.

Vice President Joe Biden has deep support in the state, too, and has been in and out of the state for months. He was in a suburb of Charleston during the shootings, and return unannounced to Emmanuel Church a week and a half later to hold a service with the congregation. The Draft Biden effort has deep connections there, and Biden could seriously undermine Clinton’s support.

Still, Sanders—and Biden, if he decides to run—are starting late in the game. Clinton had staff on the ground the day she announced, and was busy collecting endorsements and racking up volunteers months before other candidates had a presence in the state. It will be a long slog for Sanders and Biden to find uncommitted local notables and voters.

“Hillary Clinton’s name ID in the African American community couldn’t be any better. They’re totally saturated,” said Jaime Harrison, the chair of the south Carolina Democratic Party. “She’s in an enviable position.”

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