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South Carolina Democrats stunned by Biden’s plan to put them first in 2024

Top South Carolina Democrats had not even requested to be moved to the most enviable spot for the 2024 presidential primary.

WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden proposed making South Carolina the first to vote in the 2024 Democratic presidential primaries Thursday, Democrats in the state were caught completely off-guard.

It wasn't something they had asked for.

"It’s a very pleasant surprise," said Carol Fowler, the state's representative on the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee, which met Friday to codify the new plan.

During the monthslong process to rewrite the primary calendar, South Carolina was focused on keeping its spot among the early states, or maybe moving up its date a bit — but did not push to be first, she said.

Not even Rep. Jim Clyburn, the longtime dean of South Carolina Democrats and a key Biden ally, received an early heads-up. He found out Thursday night in a phone call from the president, according to a South Carolina Democratic official.

"The boss didn't ask for this," the official said of Clyburn.

Clyburn himself told NBC News he was not involved in the decision, but was obviously pleased with it.

"You can't find a state that size that will allow you to connect with a broader range of voters," he said.

Clyburn had in the past, however, publicly blasted Iowa and New Hampshire as states not representative of the coalition that helped sweep Biden into office.

Jim Clyburn,Joe Biden
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn listens as then-presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at an event in North Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 26, 2020. Gerald Herbert / AP file

For a red state, South Carolina plays an outsize role in Democratic politics. It revived Biden’s flagging presidential campaign in 2020, and both the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Jaime Harrison, and a top House Democrat, Clyburn, hail from the state.

Harrison said Friday that he only found out while attending the state dinner Thursday. A senior White House official tracked him down to break the news after they could not get through on his cell phone -- which his wife was using to take photos.

"I was stuffing my mouth with shrimp and she found me in the room and said, 'Have you heard?' I said, 'What are you talking about?'" Harrison recalled with a laugh.

The South Carolina plan has plenty of detractors, especially from states that were passed over for the prime spot.

Underscoring the unexpected nature of Biden's announcement, on Thursday, the Congressional Black Caucus had endorsed Nevada to become the first-in-the-nation state. Clyburn is part of the CBC leadership.

"The Congressional Black Caucus PAC is urging the Democratic National Committee to select Nevada as the first Presidential Primary and to continue to defend South Carolina’s critical role as an early state," a statement from the caucus read.

South Carolina's Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson was as surprised as anyone by the development.

When reached by phone Thursday night after Biden's recommendation became public, he laughed in disbelief.

"I'm trying to figure this out myself," Robertson said.

Earlier in the day, his main concern was just keeping South Carolina in the top states at all. He warned about larger states leapfrogging South Carolina and said he hoped the committee would make sure to protect the intent of the early-state window, which was to create an equal playing field for candidates who were not multimillionaires.

"I'm referencing not only the concern about Georgia ... but I also think that the same may be true for Michigan," Robertson said then.

Biden's proposal would remove Iowa from its longtime position at the front of the line. Instead, South Carolina would go first on Feb. 3, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada on the same day (Feb. 6), trailed by Georgia (Feb. 13) and then Michigan (Feb. 27).

The Rules and Bylaws Committee approved the plan Friday, with just two dissenting votes coming from Iowa and New Hampshire. It will now require approval of the full DNC when it meets early next year. Most insiders expect the president to get his way.

"It’s not a done deal yet," Fowler said. "South Carolina Democrats would support this president whatever he asks for — and we are pleased that what he’s asking for is beneficial to us."