COLUMBIA, S.C. — The rally in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of South Carolina’s Capitol was solemn, with speaker after speaker invoking his courage and vision. But this city’s mayor couldn’t help but turn his eye from the past to the future for just a moment.
“The road to the White House starts in South Carolina,” Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia happily decreed Monday, as two likely candidates, waiting their chance to speak, sat behind him in silent testimony.
But Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Cory Booker of New Jersey are hardly the only Democratic presidential hopefuls with South Carolina on their mind — or even the only two who will be in the state this week.
The primary here may still be 405 days away and only fourth on the calendar of early-nominating states, behind Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. But at a time when President Trump has stoked racial divisions and black voters have become an increasingly crucial Democratic constituency, South Carolina is already looming larger at the outset of this race than in any recent Democratic nominating contest.
“It’s hard to construct a scenario where South Carolina is not the gateway to the nomination,” said David Plouffe, former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, describing it as a springboard into the most delegate-rich day of the primary and a proving ground for who can appeal to black voters. “If you don’t have the capacity to perform well in South Carolina, it likely means you’re not capable of performing well later in the primary.”
This state is poised to play an outsized role in 2020 because of a confluence of demography and timing. South Carolina will be the first contest in which a majority of those casting ballots will be African-American. In 2016, black voters made up roughly 60 percent of the South Carolina Democratic primary vote. (In the general election, they usually make up less than a quarter of the vote in a state that is reliably Republican.)
The winner here will enter the March 3 Super Tuesday contests with a burst of momentum. South Carolina will mark the final clash before California, Texas and an array of similarly diverse states, comprising over 30 percent of the race’s total delegates, vote just three days later.
While some of the nine Super Tuesday states allow early balloting, the Democrats who wait to vote on Primary Day itself will be heavily influenced by the South Carolina results.
“People ask me if I’m concerned California has moved up, and I say: No, it just makes South Carolina more important, because all that people are going to be talking about on Saturday night, Sunday and Monday is who won South Carolina,” said Jaime Harrison, a former state chairman here, referring to California’s decision to move its primary from June to March.
The compressed schedule — there is exactly one month between the Iowa caucuses and Super Tuesday — and the multiracial nature of Nevada and South Carolina may also tempt some candidates not to focus exclusively on Iowa and New Hampshire in the weeks leading up to those first two, heavily white states.
Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president, would need to extend his support beyond the political establishment to win South Carolina in a crowded field of candidates.CreditTom Brenner for The New York Times
“I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody didn’t just decide to just plant a flag in South Carolina and hope that’ll give them the springboard into the next states,” said Leah Daughtry, a longtime Democratic strategist.
The most consequential question here, at least at the beginning of the campaign, is whether former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will run. He has a stronger network of supporters in South Carolina than in any of the other kickoff states. And Representative Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat and the most influential Democrat in the state, said the former vice president would be the man to beat.
“If Biden gets in the race, everybody else would be running for second place,” said Mr. Clyburn, who is one of the nation’s most powerful African-American politicians.
Other liberals, especially young ones, are far more skeptical of Mr. Biden’s prospects. But what’s undeniable is that if he does not enter the race, it will leave endorsements and support from a number of prominent Democrats up for grabs.
“He’s got to give folks a chance who would be making a second decision if he’s not going to do it,” said State Senator Gerald Malloy, a Biden supporter who said it “would be advisable” for him to make his intentions known soon.
The last two contested Democratic primaries illustrate how important South Carolina has become since it was designated an early-nominating state.
Mr. Obama’s nomination was forged here 11 years ago this month when black voters veered from their initial support for Hillary Clinton and rallied to his history-making candidacy. And in 2016, Mrs. Clinton sowed the seeds of her own nomination by overwhelming Mr. Sanders in South Carolina thanks to many of those same African-Americans, a pattern that would be replicated throughout the South that year.
Now, even before some of them begin their campaigns, a handful of the most formidable would-be presidential candidates are signaling that they understand how pivotal this state and its African-American electorate will be in 2020.
Senator Kamala Harris of California, who announced her candidacy Monday, is making South Carolina her first early-state destination with a trip to Columbia on Friday to address a fund-raiser for an African-American sorority. After making racial justice central in her campaign launch this month, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts will make her initial foray as a candidate to the state on Wednesday.
Mr. Sanders and Mr. Booker, neither of whom has formally declared he is running, showed up in unusually chilly weather for the commemoration of Martin Luther King’s Birthday. Mr. Booker had some private meetings while in Columbia, and Mr. Sanders went to two other cities in the state.
Mr. Biden has repeatedly visited for vacations and to nurture his relationships, most recently addressing an N.A.A.C.P. banquet in Charleston last fall.
And former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas has two of his most vocal “Draft Beto” operatives here, as well as a budding text message friendship with Representative Joe Cunningham, the freshman lawmaker from Charleston who sprang one of the biggest upsets of 2018.
That’s not to mention Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who last week revealed he would test out a potential campaign with a handful of trips, including to South Carolina, and spent time calling prominent black officials in the state, including Mr. Benjamin and former State Representative Bakari Sellers.
“I think we’re suffering from an embarrassment of riches right now,” said Mr. Benjamin, who plans to make an endorsement once he sees more clarity in the race. “We have to run this gantlet and not have too many self-inflicted wounds.”
But there is little doubt who, at the start of the race, is being talked about the most in South Carolina.
“From African-Americans, I’ve only heard three names being discussed: that’s Booker, Harris and Biden,” said Mr. Clyburn. (Not only is Mr. Clyburn being wooed by the candidates, but his daughter Jennifer, who teaches at the University of South Carolina, has also received calls from Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker.)
The question Mr. Biden faces is whether his support would extend beyond the political establishment with whom he has an enduring bond and to rank-and-file voters.
Jarrod Loadholt, a Democratic strategist, said Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker would garner the “first look” from black voters and dismissed the “traditional Democratic thought” that the former vice president had any hold on African-Americans.
“Black people loved Obama, not Biden,” Mr. Loadholt said, likening Mr. Biden to a side dish. “Biden was the fries, and you can live without the fries. He was never the main event.”
Even before she touches down to speak to her fellow Alpha Kappa Alphas, there is great anticipation about Ms. Harris, particularly among black women, who are the most dependable Democratic voters in the state.
“I’m interested in hearing from Kamala Harris,” said Alyssa Robillard, a University of South Carolina professor who praised Ms. Harris for being “able to get to the heart of an issue in a way that demands a response.”
Todd Rutherford, a member of the state legislature, recalled that when the California senator appeared in the state last year there was “an electricity” in the air and “after she got done, everybody in room wanted to touch her.”
But Mr. Rutherford hastened to add that black voters in the state will not automatically line up with an African-American candidate at a moment when defeating the president is a paramount concern for many Democrats.
“We’ve had our first black president,” he said. “If they don’t think you can win against Donald Trump, it doesn’t matter if you’re black, purple or green.”
South Carolina is famously seen from the outside as a rough-and-tumble and often transactional political state — and that perception is not entirely unwarranted. Even though it’s still unclear who exactly will be in the field, Democrats are already eagerly jockeying for position.
Boyd Brown, a former state lawmaker who is now helping lead the “Draft Beto” effort, said he is making the case to well-connected black Democrats that they would play a more influential role with Mr. O’Rourke than with one of the African-American candidates.
“You’re going to be, what, 12th on the totem pole,” said Mr. Brown. “If you want to be on the top of the totem pole, come over here.”
At least at the moment, few black leaders or voters have expressed much curiosity about Mr. O’Rourke, who has not indicated if he is running.
There is also little initial interest among black voters in Ms. Warren, although she has used her campaign announcement and developing stump speech to focus explicitly on the challenges confronting people of color.
“She is extremely aware of the changing face of the Democratic Party,” said Mr. Harrison, noting that in a recent telephone conversation, he told Ms. Warren that she can’t simply “camp out” in New Hampshire and Iowa. Her response?
“You’re exactly right,” Mr. Harrison recalled Ms. Warren telling him.