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Up Next In 2020 Race: South Carolina's Primary


After Bernie Sanders' victory in the Nevada caucuses yesterday, Democratic candidates are moving onward to South Carolina. That state's primary is on Saturday, and the race is looking tight. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports on the armies of volunteers and campaign staff trying to win over one voter at a time.


DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Helen Spearman says she's been out door-knocking 20 or 30 times ahead of the presidential primaries. And a week and a half before South Carolina's primary, she went out canvassing again for Joe Biden in the Columbia suburbs.

HELEN SPEARMAN: Good. We came by to ask you for your support for Vice President Biden. He's the best choice for us. So...

KURTZLEBEN: Just a few hours later and a few miles away, Bernie Sanders canvasser Garret Shubert managed to catch someone at home on a weekday afternoon.



SHUBERT: My name's Garret. I'm with the Bernie Sanders campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Okie doke (ph).

SHUBERT: May I ask...

KURTZLEBEN: That night, the Buttigieg campaign hosted a Women for Pete event in the small town of Abbeville. Tiffany James, who works for the campaign, explained how the candidate first inspired her last year.

TIFFANY JAMES: I was like, oh, OK. So he's 37. I'm 37. And then I said, well, if he had the audacity to run for president, I can sure ask for a promotion, you know?


KURTZLEBEN: For the past week, the candidates have been campaigning in Nevada. Bernie Sanders' victory there could give him further momentum, and he had already been catching up to Biden in this state. Polls show Biden's once-commanding lead here slipping. Meanwhile, businessman and billionaire Tom Steyer has been on the rise. And still, 4 in 10 South Carolina Democrats said in a recent poll that they could still change their minds.

Volunteers like Helen Spearman know the competition is intense. Walking near a loud vehicle, she describes a recent Steyer event at a nearby church.

SPEARMAN: You know, you get ticket. Then you get hot dog, hamburger, French fries, chicken wings, you know? My brother did the catering for it because he had the food truck. But you know where - when there's food, people will be there.

KURTZLEBEN: It's not just organization. Ads can make a big difference. Steyer has by far outspent his rivals in the state, dropping more than $21 million, according to ad analytics. That's more than nine times the next top-spending candidate.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm backing Tom Steyer because he helps everyone, regardless of where you're from.

KURTZLEBEN: One more thing voters are taking into account - the Democratic debates. At the latest one, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren pummeled former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg over allegations of sexual harassment. That made an impression on Kenneth McCaster, a professor of criminal justice at South Carolina State University who said he's still deciding between Biden and Warren.

KENNETH MCCASTER: Elizabeth Warren just speaks to real people, and she's real - got a lot of guts, as she showed in the debate. I like that.

KURTZLEBEN: Amid all this, though, Bloomberg looms over the South Carolina race, despite not even being on the ballot. Out knocking doors for Biden, Joyce Delk brought up the former mayor, saying she's troubled by the stop-and-frisk policy he once backed.

JOYCE DELK: I would not vote for him because of what he did toward the black race. So he's about the only one that I say that I would not vote for.

KURTZLEBEN: But he does have fans in the state. Canvassing for Sanders, Garret Shubert met one of them - Columbia resident Scott Padgett, who said he supported Sanders four years ago.

SHUBERT: So may I ask which of the candidates you're leaning towards on the 29?

SCOTT PADGETT: Today, Bloomberg.

SHUBERT: Bloomberg. OK. What attracts you to Bloomberg?

PADGETT: Electability.

SHUBERT: Electability.

KURTZLEBEN: But since Bloomberg isn't on the ballot until the Super Tuesday contests, after South Carolina votes, Padgett ended up voting early for Biden. Sanders is hoping his win in Nevada may convince more voters here that he is electable.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News, Columbia, S.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLAZO'S "SKY BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.