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Waist-Deep in the ‘Big Muddle’

Days before the first Democratic debates, the candidates struggle to stand out in a melee of South Carolina fish fries and forums.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

John Hickenlooper exudes a refreshing level of candor that is rare in the 2020 presidential hunt.

Late Saturday afternoon, the former two-term Colorado governor was wandering—almost unrecognized—on the fringes of a claque of Joe Biden supporters after the end of South Carolina Democratic convention in Columbia. Working his way through a package of red Twizzlers as he waited for a TV appearance, Hickenlooper expressed the lament of all the Democrats struggling for the sunlight of public attention.

“We think we’re all different,” Hickenlooper said of the 21 presidential contenders, each of whom spoke for seven minutes to the state convention on Saturday. “But when the public hears us, we’re more similar than different.” With a hint of wistfulness, Hickenlooper added, “The fact that I’ve done all the things that the others just talk about should set me apart. But not yet.”

Then, Hickenlooper, who also served two terms as mayor of Denver, said to himself as much to me the single inspirational word, “Progress.”

In theory, the two Democratic debates set to take place this week (Hickenlooper will be in the second ten-candidate scrum on Thursday night) could scramble the presidential field. But this past weekend in Columbia—which also featured House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s sweltering outdoor Fish Fry and a Planned Parenthood candidate forum—illustrated the difficulty of sounding distinctive in a clotted field of candidates.

“At this point, it’s a big muddle,” said Sharon Givens, a freelance grant-application writer from Columbia, after dutifully watching all the speeches at the state convention. “I need to go home and look at YouTube to remember who said what.”

While I chatted with Hickenlooper, Biden was on a raised platform at the rear of the convention hall trying to use an MSNBC interview with Al Sharpton to defuse his recent comments about working with arch-segregationist Senator James Eastland.

It is odd that the 76-year-old Biden feels compelled to reminisce about long-dead 1970s reactionary senators like Eastland. On his first campaign trip to New Hampshire in mid-May, Biden, unbidden, described how he discovered the humanity of the ultra-conservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. These stories make Biden appear to be a twentieth-century political figure struggling for relevance in 2019. (In contrast, when 73-year-old Bob Dole, another Capitol Hill titan, ran for president in 1996, he never bragged that he had served with the three men whose names adorn the Senate office buildings: Richard Russell, Everett Dirksen, and Phil Hart.)

But perhaps the most serious problem afflicting Biden in his third race for the White House is that he has lost the ability to deliver a compelling speech. While Kamala Harris and Cory Booker scored and soared with their rhetoric at the state convention, Biden offered a laundry list of disjointed policy proposals (“I want to triple Title I funding for schools in distress”) that sounded like he was a bottom-of-his-class graduate of the Hillary Clinton School of Oratory.

Biden’s speech on Saturday was a conversion experience for Lynn Clark, an alternate convention delegate from Charleston who is a court reporter in civilian life. “It make me think that Biden is off my list,” she said. “He was the only candidate reading a speech—and even then he stumbled. He was a great vice president and I loved him. But I don’t see Biden going head to head with Trump.”

There is an obvious danger in extrapolating too much from a rocky patch for Biden many months before the Iowa caucuses (February 3), the New Hampshire primary (February 11), and the South Carolina primary (February 29). But it is also possible to see Biden as the political equivalent of Tantalus, the tragic figure from Greek mythology who was in water up to his neck—water that disappeared as soon as he tried to drink. For Biden, who first declared for the presidency 32 years ago, the Oval Office is always tantalizingly close, until he enters the race.

South Carolina will be pivotally important on the 2020 political calendar. As the last of the four early states to weigh in (the Nevada caucuses fall on February 22), it will mark the end of the old-fashioned part of the campaign when candidates pitch their woo in backyards and restaurants. Three days after South Carolina votes, Democrats in 13 states (including California and Texas) will choose roughly 40 percent of the delegates to the convention. As a result, the outcome in South Carolina will dominate the political news in the run-up to Super Tuesday, and it is not tautology to say that in presidential primary politics the best way to win is having just won. Far better to have this headline, “Powered by SC Upset, Candidate X Barnstorms California” than “Candidate Y Vows to ‘Fight On’ Despite Stinging SC Defeat.”

With African American voters likely to make up nearly 60 percent of the voters in the South Carolina Democratic primary, the current summertime favorites here are Harris, Booker, and Biden. But Harris and Booker (two senators who have been overshadowed in recent months by the rise of Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg) will first have to maintain their credibility with respectable showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. It is amazing how fast support can evaporate in politics after a few fifth-place finishes.

Biden is a different case since his collapse—if it comes—will probably be in slow motion, losing a branch at a time rather than dramatically toppling with a cry of “Timber!” Through his linkage with Barack Obama, Biden retains a reservoir of support in South Carolina, particularly among older black voters, that will be hard to shake.

Friday night at the Clyburn Fish Fry—where the temperatures would have even impressed Satan—I sought a dollop of air-conditioning by perching at a table near where paper containers of fried whiting and white bread were given out to those who could endure the hour-long lines. I was joined at the table by 91-year-old Gladys Butler Goforth (who had taught Romance languages at the historically black Benedict College in Columbia), her 89-year-old sister, Esther Ruth Butler Sims, and their brother, Alphonzo Butler, 83. All are unflagging Biden supporters—and, as Alphonzo Butler put it, “We’re political activists and we support righteously.”

Goforth, in particular, was unfazed by the Eastland controversy. Just a few days earlier, Booker had demanded an apology from Biden, who refused. “I wish Biden hadn’t tried to respond at all,” she said. “I don’t think he has a segregationist bone in his body. I just wish that Biden was above all that.”

The 78-year-old Clyburn—the most important Democrat in South Carolina and the highest-ranking African American legislator in Capitol Hill history—commands a deference unmatched by anyone in Iowa or New Hampshire. As a result, every Democratic presidential contender came bounding onto the stage at the Fish Fry wearing blue Clyburn T-shirts, which was not a flattering look, regardless of gender.

There was one exception, however: Bernie Sanders stuck to his dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves. (He finally wore a Clyburn shirt for the final group picture.) But Sanders’s initial resistance made me momentarily wonder about his hitherto hidden vanity. Is it possible that Sanders wakes up every morning with neatly combed hair and then has a stylist work for 90 minutes to achieve his disheveled look?

There were small inadvertent indignities at the Fish Fry. Twice Clyburn referred to a former Texas Senate candidate as “Beto O’Rook” as if O’Rourke’s last name were an Irish rendering of a chess piece. And Clyburn mistakenly announced that Hickenlooper’s home state was California.

But those missteps aside, more than anything, this past weekend in Columbia will be remembered as a freeze-frame rendering of the Democratic race just before the debates.

It is a time when I feel that I am an obtuse detective missing an obvious clue about the future trajectory of the race. I worry that I will look back and wonder why I didn’t notice that telltale stain on the rug. But at the moment, I can understand why I gravitate to nakedly honest candidates, like Hickenlooper, and voters who call the nomination fight “a big muddle.”