COLUMBIA, S.C.—Outside a hip converted textile mill in a leafy downtown neighborhood, Barack Obama’s former Upstate political director Jon Metcalf is beaming as the place empties out. A largely black crowd of about 100 had shown up to hear about the Ready for Hillary shadow campaign. They didn’t pack the house, and plenty of chicken fingers, sandwiches, and meatballs are still left on the buffet table inside, but Metcalf is thrilled with the turnout.
“There is no other candidate that can do this right now,” he says. “Nobody else in the field can get people excited about the possibility of them running.”
This is Hillary Clinton 2.0 in the early-primary state where Obama crushed her in a bitter 2008 campaign. Wounds from that race were unsutured as recently as last week when media reported on advance copies of a new memoir by Rep. Jim Clyburn. In it he recounts a 2 a.m. phone call from a cursing Bill Clinton, who blamed the then-House majority whip for his wife’s defeat in Dixie. Clyburn had remained neutral in the race, but in the lead-up to the election here, he’d said Bill Clinton should “chill a little bit” at a time when the former president was throwing wild haymakers at Obama in full attack mode. Bill Clinton would later compare Obama’s first-in-the-South win to Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 victories—a remark Clyburn and others interpreted as a racially tinged diss.
But if the small event in Columbia six years later is any indication, things have smoothed over. The switch might be easy. Ready for Hillary? Sure, why not?
“We’ve spent a great deal of time healing those wounds and having conversations with people,” Metcalf says of the South Carolina effort. He’s organizing more of the events throughout the state, and he used the phrase “building an army.” His pitch is familiar. “I have three little girls and I want to be able to tell them that they can be president,” he says. “Just like as an African-American when I worked on Barack’s campaign. Thirty-eight points down, but I wanted to be able to tell my little girls that you could be president.”
A small smattering of Democratic Party officials and candidates had been milling around inside, sipping sweet tea and nibbling at the buffet, but the crowd was largely young college students, some who had heard about the event through a University of South Carolina Democratic club. “Our president, who is here somewhere, she just kind of sent out a group message, she was like, ‘Hey guys, I got invited to this, come out if you’re interested,’ ” a freshman tells me. “So here I am.”
One marquee host for the event is Bakari Sellers, a young and ambitious rising star in the party—and an early Obama backer in 2008—who is running for lieutenant governor. He says he can’t endorse someone who’s not running yet, and his involvement with Ready for Hillary came when the super PAC’s people in D.C. reached out to him.
“For me it was an opportunity to build excitement,” he says. “I think the Republican Party has done a great job, especially in the South, of draining the hope from Democrats and moderates and taking away the excitement. This is just one step and one day and one night where the world is watching. ... Democrats are alive.”
Moving through the gathering and making acquaintances is a young man named Quentin James. His title: Black Americans Director for Ready for Hillary PAC. He lives in Washington, D.C., but he’s from Spartanburg, S.C. The first campaign he ever worked on was Obama’s in 2007 as a student at Furman University. He’s ready for Hillary because she has the experience. I ask whether he expects it’ll be so easy for other early Obama supporters who remember that contentious primary to make the switch. He doesn’t bite. “I think the party was blessed to have two amazing candidates run in 2008,” he says. “We’re seeing incredible enthusiasm across the state.”
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler, who teaches at a nearby university, has dropped in for a brief visit. He says that if Hillary should decide to run two years from now she won’t have any problem in South Carolina. “Of course, I said that in 2008, too,” he says.
But right now Hillary is the only 2016 game in town and a reason for Democrats to get together in rented halls throughout a state where it’s never too early to talk presidential politics. For now they seem as ready for Hillary as anyone, even if sometimes a little awkward. As a speaker finishes and walks from the podium, a young group in the crowd lets out a loud chant: “Fired up, ready to go!” Heads jerk up and look around, and the kids drop it abruptly when it’s clear the chant won’t catch on.
Sellers looks askance at the group from a distance. “You can’t steal that,” he says quietly to no one in particular.