Clinton hopes for show of force in South Carolina vote

Hillary Clinton speaks at the Orangeburg County Fairgrounds in South Carolina on Feb 26, 2016.
Hillary Clinton speaks at the Orangeburg County Fairgrounds in South Carolina on Feb 26, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

COLUMBIA (AFP) - Hillary Clinton is eyeing a decisive win in South Carolina's Democratic presidential nomination race on Saturday, with the hope of gaining momentum against Bernie Sanders before the upcoming high-stakes "Super Tuesday" contests.

Just one week after Donald Trump barrelled to victory in the state's Republican vote, Democrats are taking centre stage in South Carolina, where 55 per cent of voters in the 2008 Democratic primary were black.

Clinton is favoured to win the southern state, and already leads in the delegate count at this early stage, having won two of the first three nomination contests - in Iowa, narrowly, and Nevada.

Polling stations open at 7am (1200 GMT) and will close 12 hours later.

"It would be a super send-off to do well here tomorrow," Clinton told several hundred people, most of them African Americans, who gathered on Friday for an oyster roast and fish fry at the county fairgrounds in Orangeburg.

By contrast, Sanders received a cool welcome from the same crowd when he arrived unexpectedly at the same event on the heels of the former secretary of state.

"In 1963, I was there with Doctor (Martin Luther) King for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," he said, earning some applause.

Later in Columbia, Sanders delivered his final speech to an oversized, half-empty auditorium - while in Iowa, he had easily filled an arena with some 5,000 supporters.

While Sanders has the support of some high-profile African Americans such as film director Spike Lee and the rapper Killer Mike, Clinton is backed by many local elected officials and black community figures.

The 68-year-old also curries favour with many of the same voters who supported her husband, Bill, whose popularity as a presidential candidate rivaled even that of Barack Obama.

Both presidents are men whom Clinton knows well, and she frequently jokes about being a part of their political lineage.

"I'm not running to do either one of their third terms, but I do think they really did a good job for America, and it would be foolish not to learn from them," Clinton said.

In South Carolina, Clinton's campaign has worked hard to hammer home the message that she is the only candidate who can break down barriers still preventing minorities from getting ahead.

Some Clinton supporters say Senator Sanders, a transplanted New Yorker and self-declared democratic socialist who now represents Vermont, is little known in the south.

Although Sanders, 74, was in South Carolina Friday, his prospects in the state are poor and he has invested few resources here.

Instead, he is focusing on states like Ohio and Minnesota that vote in March, when a whopping 45 per cent of the delegates who will attend the nominating convention are up for grabs.

He is to spend Saturday in Texas and Minnesota, while Clinton will be back in Columbia by night.

Only three per cent of delegates for July's nominating convention in Philadelphia will be awarded by the end of the day.

But the 11 states that hold Democratic nominating contests just days later on Super Tuesday will send a whopping 18 per cent of the delegates to Philadelphia.

Clinton is ahead in most of the 11 states, but Sanders has the edge in Massachusetts and his adopted home state of Vermont.

Since he entered the campaign last year, Sanders has made up some lost ground with minorities in terms of face and name recognition.

But Clinton's supporters, minority or otherwise, invariably say she is "qualified" and "experienced".

"If she's elected, she can hit the ground running, she's familiar with foreign policy," said Sylvia Robinson, 64, a retired educator who attended the Orangeburg event.

A win on Saturday would mark Clinton's third since Feb 1, and would silence critics who say she has led a sluggish campaign.

Since entering the race last April, Clinton's campaign has had its ups and downs.

One of its lowest points was the FBI investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

But the candidate said she was not worried.

"I am, you know, personally not concerned about it, I think that there will be a resolution on the security inquiry," she told MSNBC.

Polls carried out last week gave Clinton a clear advantage in South Carolina: about 56 per cent compared to 28 per cent for Bernie Sanders.