Clinton gets personal as Sanders touts revolution in South Carolina

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Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are competing for support in South Carolina (AP Photo/Matt Rourke; Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Granular vs. global. Personal vs. systemic. The pragmatist vs. the revolutionary.

As the Democratic presidential candidates compete in the South Carolina primary Saturday and hurtle toward the looming March contests, their contrasting pitches are on full display. Hillary Clinton is touting her regional expertise and personal ties on the ground, while Bernie Sanders focuses on his broader message of tackling income inequality and political oligarchy.

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Hillary Clinton says South Carolina is ready for change

The rival camps embrace the distinction, leaving Democratic voters to settle which approach works better.

"I have noticed those differences," said Jaime Harrison, South Carolina Democratic Party chairman. "Hillary Clinton has been campaigning for years with Bill Clinton, who is probably the master at making people feel particularly special and that he's known them forever. ... Sen. Sanders is trying to paint a larger focus effort based on the larger revolution that he's talking about."

Competing aggressively in the wake of Clinton's Nevada caucus victory and Sanders' New Hampshire primary win, the stylistic choices highlight key tensions in the race: her strength in endorsements, party support and tangible policy achievements, much of which Sanders lacks, versus his ability to connect with voters through a big inspirational message, something Clinton has struggled to do.

Sanders delivers catch phrases that are as consistent as they are punchy, and his supporters say they really resonate. "Enough is enough!" ''Are you ready for a radical idea?" that the average contribution to his campaign is just $27. Sometimes rally-goers shout answers back at him and boo when he criticizes Goldman Sachs or the billionaire Koch brothers.

"What this campaign is about is saying that the United States of America is not about a handful of billionaires controlling our economy, controlling our political life," the Vermont senator told a cheering crowd in Michigan recently. "We are going to have a political revolution."

Sanders' senior adviser Tad Devine says this is by design. "He really believes. A big part of the reason he got into this was the message. It's a message he's been delivering for a long, long time," Devine said. "You go to your strength in this business."

Clinton, on the other hand, tailors her chosen policy prescriptions to the audience in front of her - weaving in references to local Democratic leaders she's worked with, like Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Gov. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire or Rep. Jim Clyburn in South Carolina. Often, she also cites local Republicans as a convenient foil.

In a recent debate in Milwaukee, the former secretary of state slammed Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, accusing him of hurting the middle class by "making it impossible to organize and stand up for better wages and working conditions." Last fall in Alabama, she hammered the state's Republican governor for closing motor vehicle offices in many of the state's poorest and majority black areas, saying that hurt people who need a photo ID to vote.

"A blast from the Jim Crow past," she called it.

Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said her ability to talk about issues at a granular, local level is a strength, citing her efforts to draw attention to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, as an example of how she is seeking to make an impact during the campaign.

"Her point is, 'I'm a problem solver that can get things done,' " Fallon said. "Increasingly people are going to be looking past the appeal of the big promises Sen. Sanders is making and judging who is equipped to get things done."

Sanders makes some effort to modify his message. He sometimes notes as he campaigns in the South that anti-union sentiments dominate the region's statehouses, and, like Clinton, he sometimes calls out Republican governors who have declined to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. In Michigan recently, he met with families dealing with the Flint water crisis and spoke of his shock over the situation.

Likewise, Clinton still tries to weave her specific message into a bigger theme. Recently she's started using the phrase "breaking down barriers" to encapsulate her campaign message - addressing the gamut of issues facing society, whether gender, race, economic or political barriers.

Still, South Carolina voters see the differences. One state lawmaker said Clinton's emphasis on details and personal connections overshadows Sanders' approach and the "fantasy" of his policy pitch.

"She's not just selling people something but talking about reality," says Todd Rutherford, Democratic leader in the South Carolina House of Representatives. "I've been doing this a long time, and I'm tempered by what's possible."

But for some Sanders backers, the senator's "revolution" remains unrealized not because of his failures, but due to the very political and economic class he rails against.

"He's like Dr. King. He has a dream," said Wallena Crumlin, 60, a retail clerk from Columbia.

As for policy nuances and street-level application, Crumlin says Sanders' supporters live the details every day. "He's very personal," she explained, because "he's addressing the very personal needs and concerns of the individual person."
Related Topics:
politicsu.s. & world2016 electionpresidential racedemocratshillary clintonbernie sandersSouth Carolina
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