COLUMBIA, S.C. — Eight of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates locked arms in a brief demonstration of unity Monday amid some of the most intense intra-party sparring to date as they marched in honor of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
One week after Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont questioned each others' honesty on a debate stage, the two shared a warm greeting outside Brookland Baptist Church before marching toward the Palmetto State capitol building for the annual civil rights rally held on the federal holiday commemorating the civil rights leader.
Former Vice President Joe Biden also offered a handshake and a smile to Sanders, two days after calling on the Vermont senator's campaign to retract what he called a "distorted" video clip questioning his commitment to protect Social Security.
For some of the candidates in Columbia Monday, it was potentially the last trip they make to the state as presidential contenders, with Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses on Feb. 3 looming as a critical test for those lagging in polling, fundraising or both. The senators on hand — Sanders, Warren, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — also have to contend with the time crunch imposed by their obligation to sit as jurors for most of the next few weeks in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial.
"I know as I get on that plane back to Washington, D.C., and sit in that chamber that I will not stand alone," Klobuchar told the crowd. "We go on behalf of the people of this great nation, we go on behalf of the truth, we go on behalf of justice."
Polls in South Carolina, which hosts the "first in the South" primary on Feb. 29, show Biden with a commanding advantage thanks to his strong and resilient support among African American voters. In his remarks, he recalled the at times violent struggle for civil rights decades ago as he warned about what was at stake today if Trump was allowed four more years in the White House.
"It's not snarling dogs that brought us to the inflection point, it's Donald Trump's poisonous, divisionist politics. We have a tremendous opportunity to take the next great step forward in racial justice, criminal justice, domestic justice, environmental justice," he said.
Sanders, meanwhile, has seen growing support among younger African American voters. He reminded the crowd that King's work was as much about economic justice as it was racial justice for Americans, calling the civil rights icon a "nonviolent revolutionary."
"He took on the entire political establishment. He took on the economic establishment. And he fought racism every step of the way," Sanders said. "Our job is not just to remember the history of Dr. King, it is to absorb his revolutionary spirit and apply it today. And that means we will fight racism in every part of American society."
Billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, who has surged in recent South Carolina polls, used his remarks in part to urge his rivals to cease their attacks on one another.
"This is not the time for the people who are running for president to bicker with the other or complain, it's not time for wine caves and old stories and old videos. This is a time where we have a job, beat Mr. Trump, there's no question about that," he said.
Warren focused on what she called "this dark moment of Donald Trump," saying America was ready to move beyond it.
"America is ready not to go back to an old system of racism and economic injustice that was broken long before Donald Trump showed up. America is ready to go forward, to write the next chapter of our history," she said.
Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg attended several church services in Columbia Monday and joined his rivals in marching on the capitol, but did not speak there as he hustled back to Iowa to attend another MLK Day event in Des Moines. Most of the other candidates were expected to follow him there.
The march the candidates joined Monday started two decades ago as part of an effort by local African American leaders to hold a counter-demonstration to a rally planned in favor of the Confederate flag that had flown over the capitol.