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Clinton Builds Support from Black Ministers

DES MOINES, IOWA - More than half of the African-American ministers who attended a Philadelphia meeting with Hillary Clinton on Wednesday have endorsed the Democratic front-runner, her campaign confirmed Saturday.

Clinton met with 50 clergy members for a wide-ranging, two-hour discussion ahead of an investment firm fundraiser with rocker Bon Jovi earlier this week. Since then, 28 ministers have pledged their support to Clinton, with more endorsements coming next week, an aide said.

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Rev. Mark Tyler, who hosted the gathering at his church, said he went into the meeting not expecting to endorse Clinton but walked away with a positive impression.

"She was extremely warm and personable," Tyler told NBC News. "I think a lot of people in that room felt the same way.

Pastors from parishes across the country discussed criminal justice, income inequality, health care and environmental disasters with Clinton at Mother Bethel A.M.E. church in Society Hill, Philadelphia.

At one point, Clinton spoke forcefully about Flint, Michigan's water emergency, which several members of the meeting said compelled them to endorse her.

"She brought attention to the crisis in Flint, demanded action, and expressed her intent to bring to light the other Flints that occur in our country all too often," Maryland Rev. Zina Pierre said. "She is qualified and equipped to do the job and represent all Americans regardless of religion or color."

Tyler called the group of faith leaders - who traveled from Louisiana, Texas, California and beyond - "some of the most significant African-American clergy persons in the country."

"I want to be your partner, not just your president," Clinton told them.

Several of the meeting's attendees urged Clinton to hold a press conference, but the campaign decided against it because they didn't want to turn the meeting into a "spectacle."

During the meeting, Tyler said he was very pleased that Clinton brought up historically black colleges and universities and "put a dollar amount" on HBCU support if elected president.

Tyler brought his young daughters to meet Clinton and said they were impressed with her, citing the interaction as another reason for endorsing her.

"This is really an important time for America. We have an opportunity here to break down another barrier and that's the barrier of gender," he said.

Clinton was criticized by her chief rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for traveling to Philadelphia to attend a fundraiser just five days before the Iowa caucuses. A new NBC News/Wall Street/Marist poll shows the two candidates virtually tied in the Hawkeye state.

That didn't seem to bother Tyler or his fellow faith leaders, who felt the meeting mattered more than a routine private function.

"Raising money is a part of campaigning. They all have to do it. That didn't give me any pause," he said. "It is a big mistake, however, to focus on her visit and to say that she came to Philadelphia only to do fundraising and to diminish this meeting."

Clinton aides are confident securing these endorsements will help Clinton continue to outperform Sanders in South Carolina, where black voters represent a large part of the Democratic electorate.

The former secretary of state is beating Sanders by 37 points in the state, according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll. Aides also hope this will propel Clinton in key March voting states, which could prove critical in the ever-tightening race between her and Sen. Sanders.