Once Friday night’s forum was over for the viewers at home and in the hall, the next round started behind the scenes.
While TV viewers at home and the audience inside Byrnes Auditorium at Winthrop University got to see the three contenders for the Democratic nomination in action, local, regional and national media watched from a press filing center inside the school’s West Center gymnasium, watching Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders answer questions on a big screen.
Then, as soon as MSNBC host Rachel Maddow asked the evening’s last question of the forum, the empty lobby turned into the “spin room” filling up with campaign representatives ready to talk about the talk voters had just seen on the air.
At first, the “spin doctors” – some of them carrying placards with their candidate’s name on it – and the journalists lugging cameras milled past each other in the foyer, until Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver stepped up in front of the Winthrop-branded backdrop and was quickly surrounded by every camera in the room.
Even as a longtime member of Congress, Sanders is still largely unknown compared to the former first lady and secretary of state. Prior to Friday’s forum, a poll by Winthrop University found Sanders had the support of just 15 percent of the state’s voters.
“We’ve been very aggressive in our outreach,” Weaver told the huddled mass of media. “Where voters know him the best is where he does the best.”
In a bid to reach the state’s African-American voters, Sanders focused on his time as a student civil rights activist in the 1960s.
“We’re meeting with African-American leaders, local leaders,” in South Carolina, Weaver said, although he noted such meetings “may not always be open to the press.”
Sanders has taken flak in the campaign on his position on gun control. In his long congressional career, he’s often taken votes against gun-control measures supported by other Democrats. Weaver was quick to shore-up Sanders’ defense of a vote to allow guns to be carried on Amtrak trains.
“It was a vote to allow passengers to carry an unloaded gun in luggage they cannot access on the train,” Weaver said, “Just like you can pack an unloaded gun on an airplane.”
After Weaver’s time in the spotlight, the crowd dispersed again, until one of the candidates, Gov. Martin O’Malley, came into the spin room, almost unnoticed by the media.
O’Malley has the longest way to go to become a competitive candidate. The same Winthrop poll found the former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor is polling at just 2 percent in the state’s first-in-the-South primary.
With his mind also on the African-American vote in South Carolina, O’Malley also spoke about the good his administration did for the black community as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland. It’s a particularly key point for O’Malley, who has been associated with the harsh police tactics that have been blamed for the death in police custody of Freddie Gray.
“Of the three candidates, I am the only one to govern a majority African-American city, one of the most addictive and violent cities in America,” a job in which O’Malley emphasized he successfully implemented a progressive agenda targeting the state’s LGBT community and immigrants as well as minorities.
O’Malley criticized Clinton’s “triangulating” answer Friday on whether she supported capital punishment.
“It’s not a deterrent, and it’s unfairly applied,” O’Malley said.
When asked specifically about the recent shooting in a black church in Charleston, O’Malley said he would not even support the death penalty in that case.
Clinton supporter state Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, seconded Clinton’s answer Friday when he said, “I wholeheartedly support the death penalty in this case.”
Clinton, who already has the support of 71 percent of S.C. voters in the Winthrop Poll, is “pushing home African-American issues, like the death penalty,” King said. “She spoke tonight about the inequality of the death penalty, and pushed state legislatures to do something about it.”