Tom Steyer Is Betting Everything On South Carolina Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund invester and climate change activist, is betting everything on South Carolina. He'll learn Saturday if it paid off.
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If South Carolina Is Joe Biden's Firewall, Tom Steyer Wants To Breach It

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If South Carolina Is Joe Biden's Firewall, Tom Steyer Wants To Breach It

If South Carolina Is Joe Biden's Firewall, Tom Steyer Wants To Breach It

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we have an update on the other billionaire in the presidential race. Michael Bloomberg has captured much of the attention. He's the one who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads and is on the ballot for the first time on Super Tuesday next week. Tom Steyer is also a wealthy activist who has been campaigning much longer and is competing for the very large black vote tomorrow in South Carolina. Here's what NPR's Juana Summers saw when she watched Tom Steyer campaign.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: People are filing into the fellowship hall of an AME church in Georgetown, S.C., Carolina to hear from Tom Steyer - or as most of them call him, Tom. No last name, either.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Welcome. Thanks for coming.

SUMMERS: They pick up shirts that say things like, reparations are past due and, invest in HBCUs. That's historically black colleges and universities. Someone's handing out church fans, the kind with a wooden handle with photos of Steyer surrounded by black South Carolinians. And there's a throwback to a refrain from the Obama years.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When I say Steyered up, you say...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Trump's got to go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting) Steyered up.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Trump's got to go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting) Steyered up.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Trump's got to go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The next president of the United States, Tom Steyer.

SUMMERS: Steyer comes in to a standing ovation. He shakes a couple hands. Then he gets right to the point.

TOM STEYER: People think I'm defined by money. We're in church. I'm not defined by money. You know, that is not how I think about myself. I'm from a family that has never thought that way about life.

SUMMERS: But the hedge fund billionaire's spending is part of why he's become a major factor here in South Carolina, where black voters are two-thirds of the primary electorate. While other candidates were focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, Steyer was here. And he made sure everyone knew it.

MACK NEISMITH: He was the one that sent out more brochures than anybody else.

NANCY DOUGHERTY: We started doing mailers in the mail. And I started reading his. And...

MARVIN NEAL: Ton of mail. I get three or four mails every week.

TATANSHIA PALMER: I get something in the mail every day (laughter).

SUMMERS: The voices you just heard were Mack Neismith and Marvin Neal of Georgetown, Nancy Dougherty of Murrells Inlet and Tatanshia Palmer of Orangeburg. They've all been inundated. Then there are the ads. Since July, when Steyer jumped into the race, he's spent more than $17 million on local broadcast ads. It's hard to turn on the TV without seeing one. Earlier this month, he announced that he'd hired Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the longest-serving member of South Carolina's state House, as a national adviser. She rarely endorses in presidential campaigns. Cobb-Hunter says it's about more than the money.

GILDA COBB-HUNTER: It's not just about money. It's about message. You can have all the money in the world. But if you ain't saying nothing, then what does it really matter? And so I think Steyer is a billionaire with a heart and a message that is resonating with people.

SUMMERS: That may be true in South Carolina. Monmouth University released a poll yesterday. Biden still has a wide lead. But Bernie Sanders and Steyer are in a virtual tie. They are the only three candidates in the double digits. A lot of the voters I met are still sizing Steyer up.

JACK SCOVILLE: Well, frankly, I haven't been very impressed with Mr. Steyer. I don't like the fact, you know, these guys come in because they've got a lot of money, and they think they can, you know, run the country.

SUMMERS: That's Jack Scoville. He's a retired lawyer who used to be mayor of Georgetown. He's leaning toward Biden. Sitting next to him is Mack Neismith. He's also retired, also undecided between Steyer, Biden and Elizabeth Warren.

NEISMITH: I'm in a dilemma right now between those three. I hadn't made up my mind yet. That's why I came out today to see what he had to say about different issues and about senior citizens and Social Security and Medicare.

SUMMERS: At a Steyer event the next day in Orangeburg, people are talking as they fill their plates high with slabs of bacon scrambled eggs and fruit from a buffet. The event was focused on rural health care. Most of the people here are black. Tatanshia Palmer was there. She's supporting Steyer now.

PALMER: I was originally planning on supporting Joe Biden because he was familiar. I figured if Barack Obama trusted him, then I could trust him, as well.

SUMMERS: All those Steyer ads were a nuisance for some people. But they were part of what won Palmer over. Rosella and Michael Cooper came from Denmark, S.C.

MICHAEL COOPER: Come to Denmark, which is such a small, small town - and it's a poor town - then they have our interest. But when you come back as many times as he has, now you not only have our interest. You got our support.

SUMMERS: Steyer's closing pitch frames the primary as currently a race for first between a former Republican, Mike Bloomberg, and a democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders.

STEYER: Actually nominating one of the people from the extremes of the party risks the party turnout. And that's what I've been trying to say about Bernie and about Mike Bloomberg.

SUMMERS: One candidate he doesn't mention is Joe Biden. Like Biden, Steyer's campaign thinks if he does well in South Carolina, it could propel him into the Super Tuesday states, where he's been investing heavily. But unlike Biden, Steyer has barely any support in the states beyond South Carolina. Juana Summers, NPR News.

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