By Amanda Becker
DENMARK, South Carolina (Reuters) – Betty Odom-Bell, a 47-year-old entrepreneur, took a financial risk last year when she opened a restaurant in Denmark, a small town in the middle of a deeply depressed part of rural South Carolina.
So when Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton visited Denmark earlier this month promising to transform the region into a “Corridor of Opportunity,” Odom-Bell felt reassured.
“It’s almost like we’re a forgotten town,” she said, describing her surprise at Clinton’s visit to the town of 3,500. “With her, there’s a connection. I don’t have that with Bernie,” she said, referring to Clinton rival Bernie Sanders.
Clinton is poised to win big over the U.S. senator from Vermont in South Carolina’s primary contest on Saturday, in part because of her outsized support among the state’s rural black poor – a bloc that Sanders has struggled to impress.
Interviews with residents in Bamberg and Allendale counties show her appeal is not just about the differences in her social policies, or her widespread name recognition. It also results from her up-close campaigning style.
Over the past several weeks, she has stumped in parts of the state that are off the beaten-path, reinforcing connections with audiences that stretch back decades, and peppering her speeches with the names of local leaders.
Sanders in contrast, has focused his visits on South Carolina’s big cities and universities, rallying large audiences with his self-styled Democratic socialist platform, while relying heavily on surrogates to do his work elsewhere.
Plans offered by Sanders to address wealth inequality and improve access to education and healthcare have attracted interest, but many complain they do not feel they know him well enough to vote for him.
“Both of them are good candidates, but I’m leaning Hillary,” said Marion Roberts, a 65-year-old retiree having coffee at a fast food restaurant on Allendale’s main street, where many storefronts are shuttered.
“Sanders talks good, but I know more about her.”
Allendale County’s 10,000 residents are nearly three-fourths black, and its unemployment rate, at about 9 percent, is nearly double the national average.
About a third of the county’s population lives below the poverty line, making it fertile ground for candidates shopping progressive social policies.
Clinton’s campaign has said South Carolina will act as an early “firewall” against Sanders, who beat her in New Hampshire’s primary and posted strong showings in Iowa and Nevada, but is expected to do worse as the race shifts south.
Nationwide, Sanders has built on his popularity with young and liberal voters to narrow the race to a statistical dead heat. But Clinton still holds a massive 40 percentage point advantage among black Democrats, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.
Clinton’s advantage results in part from her husband Bill Clinton’s outreach to black voters during his presidency. Some voters also like that Hillary Clinton has promised to build on President Barack Obama’s agenda.
Allendale City Mayor Ronnie Jackson, for example, says he is backing Clinton in part because Allendale, a town of about 3,800, depends on money under an Obama administration stimulus program for impoverished communities. He hopes Clinton would continue the support.
“That’s the only way we can survive,” he said.
But he also points to differences in the way she and Sanders have campaigned. Sanders supporters have contacted him repeatedly by phone, he said, but he saw Clinton in the flesh at Denmark town hall on Feb. 12, just half an hour away.
Over the summer, Clinton also hosted a listening session for local leaders, many from rural areas, and she recently won the endorsement of U.S. congressman Jim Clyburn, the only South Carolina Democrat in the House of Representatives.
Sanders, meanwhile, has touted his college civil rights activism, met with black civil rights leaders and hosted an event at a historically black college. Some of those efforts have shown signs of success among young blacks.
But his campaigning in rural areas has been mainly by proxy – including a visit on Monday to Allendale by campaigners organized by National Nurses United. Sanders himself moved on to other states in the run up to Saturday’s primary, while Clinton continued to campaign daily there.
James Fitts, an 80-year-old Allendale resident, said he likes Clinton’s approach. “She’s been in it a long time.”
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Steve Orlofsky)