After delivering their speeches, members of the Democratic presidential field join together on stage at Representative Jim Clyburn’s annual fish fry event in Columbia on Friday. Image Credit: AFP

Columbia, South Carolina: Almost the entire sprawling Democratic presidential field of more than 20 candidates took the same stage in the South’s first primary state, looking to make connections in a primary battleground that has helped propel the party’s last two nominees.

Former vice-president Joe Biden reintroduced himself to South Carolina voters at gatherings he’s attended many times before. His rivals tried to convince a boisterous throng at a Friday event to consider a new path.

“I think I’ve been in every one of your counties over the years,” Biden said at House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s annual fish fry, a long-standing event that this year has blossomed into a centerpiece ahead of the 2020 election.

The 76-year-old Biden touted his friendship with Clyburn and other South Carolina politicians, including former Senator Fritz Hollings, whom the Democratic front-runner eulogised earlier this year.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, made her usual detailed policy pitch. Senator Kamala Harris of California, one of two major black candidates, called attention to civil rights heroes in a state where black voters typically make up a majority of Democratic primary electorates. And lesser known candidates tried to capitalise on the spotlight, with the likes of entrepreneur Andrew Yang getting a boisterous welcome despite barely registering in national polls.

The fish fry is a highlight of a big political weekend in South Carolina. Candidates also attended the state party’s annual fundraising gala on Friday evening ahead of the Clyburn party. The state party convention and a Planned Parenthood forum on abortion rights to followed yesterday.

A proving ground

The itinerary gives candidates a key opportunity to court the black voters who are crucial in South Carolina politics, while also reaching a sometimes underappreciated block of moderate whites. The electorate here reflects those in other Southern states that follow quickly on the nominating calendar, offering candidates a proving ground to test their message.

Biden leads most national and early nominating state polls, with notable strength among South Carolina’s older black voters and moderate whites that dominate the Democratic primary here. But locals point to this weekend as a way for candidates to help reset the race ahead of the first debates next week in Miami.

“People see vice-president Biden as one of us, but most people are wide open,” said former state party chairwoman Carol Fowler, who is uncommitted in the primary. “They just want to be part of the process of defeating Donald Trump.”

Neither Warren nor Harris — two of Biden’s top rivals — mentioned the front-runner, but both drew a contrast in style. “We need big, structural change in this country, in this economy. And big structural change starts with big ideas,” Warren said, offering a list of ways she’d spend new revenue from her proposed tax on the wealthiest American fortunes.

Harris, one of two top candidates who is black, called attention to the recent fourth anniversary of a white supremacist massacre of nine black men and women at a Charleston, South Carolina, church. And she mentioned generations of civil rights activists who preceded her candidacy. Both groups, she said, were “heroes who fought and died for equality.”

Most candidates on Friday stuck to praising Clyburn, the highest-ranking black member of Congress, and promised to focus on marginalised Americans and the middle class.