NOEL KING, HOST:
Next week, many of the Democrats who are running for president are getting together in South Carolina. The thing that's drawing them there is a fish fry. It's an annual event that's been hosted for 30 years by the highest-ranking black leader in Congress, Representative James Clyburn.
NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis sat down with Congressman Clyburn in his office in the U.S. Capitol.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: First, a fact check. The invitation reads, Jim Clyburn's world-famous fish fry - world-famous?
JAMES CLYBURN: Well, it's my world (laughter), so - and anybody else who would like to claim space in it.
DAVIS: South Carolina Democratic politics is Clyburn's world, which is why the candidates are headed to the third early primary state - not for fried fish served on white bread, but for a chance to appear on stage next to him. Clyburn has endorsed presidential candidates before. But this time, he's staying out of it.
CLYBURN: I promised the party that I would help them make South Carolina relevant in the presidential. And I've been told by more than one person that if I were to make a formal endorsement in this campaign, the rest of the candidates would stay out of the state.
DAVIS: He's campaigning with all of them. But he's not neutral in his assessment of the field, calling former Vice President Joe Biden the clear frontrunner.
CLYBURN: Oh, yeah, absolutely, he is. I told everybody that months before. I said if he gets in, everybody else will be running for second place.
DAVIS: That is especially true in South Carolina, at least for now. The most recent Post and Courier poll gave Biden a nearly 31 percentage-point lead over his closest rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Biden's strength is built on the support of black voters, who made up 61% of primary voters in South Carolina in 2016. Clyburn dismisses recent attacks aimed at undercutting black support for Biden, specifically his lead role in passing the 1994 crime bill.
CLYBURN: In 1994, I voted for the crime bill. What did we do? We took mandatory minimums off of first-time offenders. We put in $3 billion for prevention programs. We put 100,000 cops on the street.
DAVIS: The law supported by most Democrats in the '90s has become a flashpoint now. It dogged Hillary Clinton in 2016, and it threatens to dog Biden in 2020 because of the perception that it alone fueled mass incarceration of minorities. Clyburn told me he thinks the crime bill divide is more with white people.
CLYBURN: That's exactly right. That is not real, not with black people.
DAVIS: He's a member of the AME church, another epicenter of South Carolina politics. And Clyburn says there is a completely different conversation happening there about Biden's record.
CLYBURN: Most of them know what I just shared with you about the crime bill. But they don't have a megaphone. I mean, you all got all the print. Y'all write this stuff. All they can do is talk about it among themselves. That's why Joe Biden is running 76% among them and so much doubt among y'all.
DAVIS: Clyburn's a lifelong civil rights activist. He met his wife in jail following a student demonstration. He thinks more politicians need to talk more about race.
CLYBURN: It shouldn't be hard. The whole question of race ought not be hard. It's real. And I don't understand why we have such a hard time discussing it, and then we can very easily say race is a big issue in the country.
DAVIS: According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 in 10 Americans say race relations in the U.S. are bad right now. And more than 7 in 10 black Americans say President Trump made them worse. Clyburn agrees.
CLYBURN: Absolutely. It just didn't start with Trump. He's putting it on steroids.
DAVIS: Whether black voters feel enthusiastic in 2020 could be a deciding factor. Clinton lost in part because black turnout decreased by 7 percentage points. Clyburn saw it coming.
CLYBURN: I tried to tell them. I met with them weeks before the campaign, says, you are losing this election. And they kept telling me what the metrics say, whatever they call it. We've done analytics, and we're winning. I said, OK, we'll see.
DAVIS: Clyburn's nervous about 2020. He's worried about Democrats' chances if the election is a referendum on the Green New Deal or framed as capitalism versus socialism.
CLYBURN: Well, if we're not careful, all of those of us who believe in capitalism, capitalism will be a thing of the past. The only reason you see the whole question of democratic socialism taking hold in so many places is because in too many places, capitalism is failing. It's just that simple.
DAVIS: In the ongoing debate about electability inside the party, I asked him what he thinks is the winning message. It sounds familiar.
CLYBURN: I think that the candidate that goes out and says, this is a great country. We don't need to make the country great. We need to make the greatness of this country accessible and affordable for all Americans.
DAVIS: Democrats will make their case for the nomination next week, with Clyburn by their side.
Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol.
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