NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton had South Carolina mostly to herself two days before the first-in-the-South primary, and she tried to used it to capitalize on her advantage over Bernie Sanders with black voters.
Clinton played up her allegiance to President Barack Obama at a rally Thursday and pledged to continue fighting for tougher gun laws — two arguments that resonate with the African-American voters who wield tremendous influence in Saturday's primary.
"I'm really proud to stand with President Obama, and I'm really proud to stand with the progress he's made," she said in Kingstree, South Carolina. "I need your help, starting with this primary on Saturday."
The Vermont senator, meanwhile, spent Thursday traversing the Great Lakes region in states that hold early March primaries with much whiter electorates than South Carolina and the Deep South, where Clinton maintains a strong Lead that could help her establish a clear earned-delegate boost in the coming weeks.
Before a thousand people Thursday evening, Clinton recalled the June massacre by a white gunman who killed the pastor and eight others at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. She pledged to "take on the gun lobby" in office, and continued to hammer Sanders' for having voted against some gun restrictions during his long congressional career.
"We need to close the gun show loophole, the online loophole and what is called the Charleston loophole, which my opponent supported, which means that at the end of three days, whether the background check is done or not you get the gun," Clinton said. "That's what the killer here in Charleston did."
Clinton's approach on guns — an important topic to black voters nationally, and particularly in South Carolina — has put Sanders on the defensive, forcing him to highlight his D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association.
Ben McGill, an undecided voter from Andrews, South Carolina, suggests Clinton's tactics have worked. "I do think she has more of an interest in gun control," he said before hearing her speak Thursday. McGill said the issue is personal for him because his elderly aunt and uncle were injured in a Baltimore shooting this week.
Earlier Thursday, Clinton told a Kingstree, South Carolina, audience she wants a genuine liberal to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the Feb. 13 death of conservative icon Antonin Scalia.
"I sure hope the president chooses a true progressive who will stand up for the values and the interests of the people," Clinton said of a seat that will determine the ideological tilt of a court left with a 4-4 split between liberals and conservatives.
Clinton had a full day of events Thursday, while her husband, former President Bill Clinton, added three appearances of his own. Sanders is scheduled to return to South Carolina on Friday. In the meantime, rapper Killer Mike of Atlanta campaigned here on his behalf.
Clinton's Thursday schedule follows a private fundraiser Wednesday in which she was interrupted by a protester who took issue with a 1996 speech she delivered on crime policy.
"They are often the kinds of kids that are called 'superpredators.' No conscience, no empathy," Clinton said at the time. "We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel."
A video of the fundraiser shows a young woman interrupting Clinton and asking her to "apologize to black people for mass incarceration" and using the "superpredators" description.
In a statement released by her campaign Thursday, Clinton said she "shouldn't have used those words, and I wouldn't use them today."
After days of huge rallies, with thousands of supporters, Sanders went on Flint, Michigan, where he participated in an intimate forum to discuss the city's lead-contaminated water crisis.
Sanders posed questions to the sanctuary packed with hundreds of Flint residents, met with shouts of "No!" and "Boo!" when he asked if the government's response to the situation had been adequate.
One after another, people told Sanders they've received murky information on what to do with the water, how to use filters and who is going to pay for the help they need. One woman described how her once thriving son now struggles with lead-related behavioral issues.
"It really stunned me," Sanders said at the outset of the 90-minute event, describing a meeting earlier this year with Flint residents. "It was almost impossible for me to believe that I was listening to people in the United States of America in the year 2016."
Sanders insists that he is not writing off South Carolina or any of the Deep South states with upcoming primaries. Yet many South Carolina voters say they are simply more comfortable with Clinton.
"Her history of getting things done — she just has a great resume," said Harvey Beach, a 50-year-old health care administrator who came to hear Bill Clinton in Winnsboro, South Carolina. "I appreciate Mr. Sanders and his ideas, I just don't think he can get it all done."
Barrow reported from Winnsboro, South Carolina. Associated Press reporter Meg Kinnard contributed to this report from Flint, Michigan. Follow Barrow and Lucey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP and https://twitter.com/Catherine_Lucey.