COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — It's been part of South Carolina politics for nearly three decades, but House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn's "World Famous Fish Fry" is a little different this year, becoming a showpiece Democratic event in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.
At Clyburn's invitation, 21 Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination will address a crowd in downtown Columbia on Friday night. The gathering marks the first time so many hopefuls from the sprawling field will appear at the same event and comes just days before the first primary debates.
The fish fry is a highlight of a big political weekend in South Carolina, with many candidates also attending the state party's annual fundraising gala. For leading South Carolina Democrats, it's the culmination on several decades of work raising the state's profile to compete with the attention afforded to Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that for decades have led off the nominating calendar.
Nearly all of the White House hopefuls will also attend a state party convention Saturday along with a Planned Parenthood forum on abortion rights. The itinerary gives candidates a key opportunity to court the black voters who are crucial to South Carolina, while also reaching a sometimes underappreciated block of moderate whites. The electorate here reflects those in other Southern states that follow quickly on the nominating calendar, offering candidates a proving ground to test their message.
"Congressman Clyburn's fish fry is a great opportunity for Democrats from every part of the state, from every walk of life, to meet and mingle with the candidates," said AJ Lenar, a strategist for the advertising and media firm GMMB. "For one night, it will be the center of the political universe."
The line stretched two blocks Friday evening. A short distance away, hundreds of donors filled a convention center for the state party dinner, where Clyburn and the would-be presidents began their evening.
The congressman joked at the gala that he was skipping dinner at the more formal event. "I didn't eat any of this chicken. I'm waiting on the fish fry," he said.
As attendees filed through security, they encountered competing chanting groups of young people. "It's time for a woman in the White House!" chanted a group in t-shirts for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren t-shirts. Nearby came a counter — "Who do we want? Ka-ma-la!" — from California Sen. Kamala Harris's camp.
Between them echoed a familiar name to South Carolinians: "You know the story! This is Biden territory."
"I love Joe Biden," said Mildred Glover, 64. But she pointed at Harris, standing a few feet away, and pointed, "I just met her. And Senator Harris talked to me, not at me. She impressed me."
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, took selfies with voters and gave interviews to reporters as they walked. Other candidates encountered the realities of such a large field. When Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet greeted one dinner patron, the man asked politely, "Are you one of the candidates?"
Dick Harpootlian, a state senator and former state party chairman surveyed the scene with a smile Saturday: "This is chaos."
Another former state party chair, Carol Fowler, stood nearby. "This is the biggest crowd we've ever had," Fowler said, referring both to donors and candidates in attendance.
She and her husband, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler, were state political celebrities in their own right, with well-wishers thanking the couple for helping to secure South Carolina's place as an early nominating state.
"They just want to be part of the process of defeating Donald Trump," Carol Fowler said.
The post-gala fish fry promises to stretch into the wee hours of the evening.
The host, Clyburn, is the third-ranking Democrat in the House and the most senior black lawmaker on Capitol Hill. His fish fry began in 1992 in a parking deck near the South Carolina Statehouse as a way to thank volunteers who helped him secure his first congressional victory. It was also an alternative for activists who couldn't afford to attend a party fundraiser held the same night.
It's grown to a crowd of about 1,500 people filling a riverside plaza in downtown Columbia.
"It's kind of like a family reunion for those of us in South Carolina," said Rep. Russell Ott, a Democrat in South Carolina's House, "and for me, it's like the pep rally before the big game."
Associated Press reporter Will Weissert contributed.
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