NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York immersed herself in South Carolina over the weekend, using her first trip to the state to introduce herself as a possible presidential candidate to the heavily black Democratic electorate.
From a house party and Main Street market to "chicken and waffles" and worship, Gillibrand's stops encompassed a broad universe of Democrats in this early voting state who are crucial to candidates seeking the party's nomination for president.
Three days is a significant time investment at this stage in the campaign, as a wide field of candidates sprint among early voting states to raise their profiles and attempt to differentiate themselves. Gillibrand's visit culminated with visits to several black churches in North Charleston, where she spoke about the importance of faith.
At a Saturday luncheon organized by the daughter of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, Gillibrand introduced herself to about two-dozen attendees, mostly women, giving her viewpoints on environmental issues, health care reform and education disparities.
"I think America's up to the challenge" of addressing those issues, she said, "but we just need leadership."
Gillibrand, who has formed an exploratory committee but has yet to launch an official campaign, is on the fringes of entering a diverse field, including two black candidates. South Carolina holds the first presidential vote in the South and has become a crucial proving ground for candidates gauging how their messaging resonates with black voters.
In 2016, nonwhite voters comprised about two-thirds of the state's Democratic primary electorate, according to data provided by the South Carolina Election Commission.
Ahead of Saturday's brunch, Gillibrand, 52, took a turn down Columbia's Main Street, stopping to ask college students about the issues most critical to them, such as the cost of higher education and student loan debt.
A few feet away, fifth-grader Joemari Ellison asked Gillibrand if she'd be willing to listen to kids on issues that matter to them. To 10-year-old Joemari, one those is litter, as well as programs for gifted and talented students.
"My plan is to listen to kids, because I think kids often know what's going on in your community," Gillibrand said. "I look forward to working for you."
Later, at Kiki's Chicken and Waffles, a minority-owned restaurant that has become known as a must-hit spot for Democratic candidates visiting Columbia, Gillibrand sat in the middle of long tables filled with mostly black businessowners, whom she asked to share their primary concerns. After assurance from the restaurant owner that it was acceptable to eat the plate of fried chicken with her fingers, Gillibrand finished up her pitch as she ate.
"It's not fair for wealthy areas to have more resources," Gillibrand said, adding that "institutional racism" is to blame for some minority-owned businesses struggling to obtain the funding necessary to grow their companies. "I will continue to build on that, to make sure that there's more access to capital for businesses of color."
Marlon Walters, a Bank of America executive, said he hadn't made up his mind about next year's Democratic primary but took to heart Gillibrand's commitment to working toward solutions for some of the black community's struggles.
"She really hit a lot of my pain points, when she hit on companies not really being concerned about the bottom line but really pouring back into the people that helped them make their money," he said, adding of Gillibrand: "I'm really impressed so far."
After Kiki's, Gillibrand headed to Greenville, where she attended an Urban League gala. Sunday brought visits to several black churches in North Charleston. At Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist, Gillibrand addressed the congregation, summoning a fiery cadence likely unrelated to her own Catholic upbringing, but one that spurred shouts of "Amen!" from the crowd of several hundred.
"I love the fact that your Bibles are under your seat," she said. "When you go on a plane, and they say, your life preserver is under your seat -- OUR life preservers are under our seat!"
"Somebody out there say, Amen! Somebody out there say, Praise the Lord! Somebody out there say, Hallelujah!" Rev. Byron Benton said, as Gillibrand took her seat, many parishioners on their feet, clapping.
As more candidates venture into the state and its black churches in the coming months, Charleston County Democratic Chairman Brady Quirk-Garvan said voters are glad to welcome hopefuls but want to hear substantive ideas.
"Just making the visit isn't enough anymore," Quirk-Garvan said. "If you can't connect on that personal level, you're going to have a hard time connecting at all."
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP