Democratic presidential candidates in South Carolina on Saturday accused President Donald Trump of stoking racism as they vied for the state’s black vote in its strategically important early primary.
Seven Democrats participated in a forum at historically black Benedict College a day after Trump was presented an award there for his work on criminal justice, sparking outrage among candidates and temporarily prompting Senator Kamala Harris to pull out.
Harris, a former district attorney and state attorney general in California, spoke at the event on Saturday after the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, which sponsored Trump’s award, was removed as a sponsor, her campaign said.
A spokeswoman for the nonprofit group did not comment.
“I said I would not come because I just couldn’t believe that Donald Trump would be given an award as it relates to criminal justice reform,” Harris told the audience.
“Let’s be clear: This is somebody who has disrespected the voices that have been present for decades about the need for reform,” she said, criticising the president for describing an impeachment inquiry against him as a “lynching,” a form of vigilante killing historically associated with white supremacists.
The event is an important showcase for Democrats ahead of South Carolina’s February 29 primary, the party’s fourth state-nominating contest. Six in 10 Democratic voters in the state are black.
In receiving the award on Friday, Trump extolled his record on race and criminal justice before a largely handpicked and appreciative audience. The award recognised Trump last year signing bipartisan legislation including easing harsh minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
“This president has been fuelling racism. He has been preaching racism from our highest office in this land,” said US Senator Cory Booker. “He does not have the support of communities like this that he actively demeans, degrades and disempowers.”
Trump hopes his support for a sweeping criminal justice reform law will help him pick up votes among African Americans next year after only winning 8 percent of the black vote in 2016. The president easily won South Carolina, where Republican voters outnumber Democrats two-to-one, in 2016.
On Twitter, the president shot back at Harris, calling her a “badly failing presidential candidate” and said low unemployment and new criminal justice reforms achieved during his administration are “more than Kamala will EVER be able to do for African Americans!”
Ten Democrats seeking the presidential nomination are speaking at events in South Carolina this weekend and presenting plans on legalising marijuana, ending the death penalty and eliminating sentencing disparities for offences involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine, which have disproportionately affected black people.
In South Carolina, Democrats are working to chip away at a strong lead in the polls held by presidential candidate Joe Biden. Bolstered by the eight years he served as vice president to Barack Obama, the first black US president, Biden has deep connections with black politicians and clergy.
Biden leads his closest rival in South Carolina, Senator Elizabeth Warren, by nearly 20 percentage points, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls.
The state may end up being crucial for the former vice president as a last line of defence if he continues to lose ground to rivals in Iowa and New Hampshire.