Clyburn explains why Harris and Booker haven't caught on in S. Carolina

The third-ranking House Democrat talked to NBC News ahead of his famous 'Fish Fry' gathering Friday night, featuring more than 20 presidential contenders.
Image: U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn speaks at a press conference held at Allen University in Columbia
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn speaks at a press conference held at Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, on Feb.19, 2016. Clyburn spoke to endorse U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. REUTERS/Chris KeaneCHRIS KEANE / Reuters

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By Ali Vitali

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn expressed "amazement" that Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have not had "more of a surge" in his state at this point in the race, referring to early polls that show the two black senators trailing far behind former Vice President Joe Biden.

During an interview in Washington this week with NBC News, Clyburn assessed the state of the Democratic primary race ahead of 22 of the 24 presidential hopefuls barreling into his home state Friday for South Carolina's Democratic convention and Clyburn's own "World Famous Fish Fry" event that night.

The state boasts a massive African American voting bloc — in 2016, black voters made up more than 60 percent of the Democratic electorate — meaning campaigns must work to woo voters of color to succeed here.

Booker and Harris have "been a little bit of amazement to me as well, because I thought for sure that there would be much more of a surge and I can't quite figure that out yet," Clyburn said.

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Of Harris, he offered that she "hasn't spelled out the policy stuff with her vision" — vision that he praised as "tremendous."

"Of course, I just thought Kamala because this just seemed to be the year of the black woman. I thought she would be surging a little more than she is," the third-ranking House Democrat said.

About Booker, on the other hand, Clyburn said, "I think he is suffering from the shadows, coming out from under the shadows of Barack Obama."

But another man carrying the mantle of the Obama administration is the former president's number two: Joe Biden. Clyburn shrugged off complaints from one local Democrat, Bakari Sellers, who accused him this week of breaking his own pledge to not endorse anyone in the primary by "tacitly endorsing" Biden.

"I don't pay attention to that stuff," Clyburn said, noting that he's "pretty close to 12 of these people" and co-sponsoring legislation with several. "So you don't walk away from your friends because you don't want somebody to criticize you for what you might say about them," he said.

In explaining Biden's strong lead in South Carolina, Clyburn — who spoke to NBC before the former VP talked about working with segregationist senators earlier this week — chalked it up to the former vice president's "long history" in the state. Biden gave eulogies for senators from both parties in recent years, and has spent years building relationships in the state.

"So, it doesn't surprise me — that's what I said — if he got into the race, everybody would also be running for second place. That's just a fact," Clyburn stated.

Even if his endorsement isn't officially on the table, Clyburn's deep roots and power in Palmetto State politics will still be on display Friday night as he hosts his annual Fish Fry.

Asked what a few thousand pounds of fish and toast have to do with winning the South Carolina Democratic primary, Clyburn laughed: "I don't know if it has anything to do with winning but it gives a candidate an opportunity to interact with those people that we have out there working the polls, knocking on doors, beating the streets for Democratic candidates. These people really, pretty often get overlooked. I started doing the Fish Fry to honor them."