Columbia, S.C. —The South Carolina Democratic primary is more than 250 days away, but that won't stop at least 22 presidential hopefuls from packing into the Palmetto State this weekend.
Democratic White House contenders will descend on Columbia Friday and Saturday for Rep. James Clyburn's "World Famous Fish Fry" and for the state Democratic Party convention — the first time since the start of the 2020 campaign cycle that so many candidates are gathered at the same time.
The state's "First in the South" primary on Feb. 29, 2020, is critical for Democratic presidential candidates, in large part due to the diversity of the state's electorate. As with the larger Democratic primary, winning depends in large part on support from the African American community.
"This is the kick off for the presidential pre-season of 2020," says Columbia-based Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. "This will be the first time you have this many candidates all in one venue, at the same time, at the same stage, talking to a very decisive voting bloc — the most important voting bloc in the Democratic primary — African American voters."
While Iowa and New Hampshire will cast the first ballots of the 2020 primary cycle, South Carolina's contest — where black voters make up 61% of the electorate — offers a different perspective on where the race could lead.
"Iowa and New Hampshire have always had a special place, but this is the year South Carolina has become a first tier early state primary," says Jaime Harrison, who is running for U.S. Senate against long-time Republican incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham.
The festivities begin Friday with as many as 1,300 people attending the Blue Palmetto Dinner featuring speeches from multiple presidential candidates and a keynote address by Rep. Cheri Bustos, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"I think you should expect to eat a lot. There's no question about it," said South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson. "There will be no excuse for someone not to be well fed by the time they leave these events."
Later that same evening, Clyburn will host his Fish Fry. Organizers ordered 4,400 pounds of fish and 6,400 slices of bread, and expect thousands to show up and hear from the candidates.
"It really is going to be ground zero for the campaign," Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin told CBS News. "It's going to give all of the candidates a chance to show what they are made of, to show the human side. You can't get tired shaking hands ... It's show time."
The Fish Fry began nearly three decades ago as a way to thank campaign workers and those who couldn't afford to attend the State Democratic Party dinner.
During the 2008 cycle, South Carolina officially became an early state. This move elevated the Fish Fry to national prominence during a presidential election year and solidified its role as an unofficial requirement for anyone vying for the Democratic nomination for president.
"This Fish Fry continues to be a way to honor those who dedicate their time and talents in support of Democratic candidates," said Clyburn in a statement. "It also provides some ordinary voters, a beyond-the-ordinary opportunity, to meet some extraordinary presidential candidates."
Clyburn is considered by many to be the most influential Democrat in the state, and his endorsement is among the most coveted in the primary process. The 14-term lawmaker is the highest ranking African American and the third highest ranking Democrat in Congress. While he is staying neutral for now, candidates will be reveling in face time with him this weekend.
"Having Clyburn introduce you to voters in the state where he's so well respected and where he has had make-or-break campaigns in past presidential primaries is a big deal," says Seawright, arguing that Friday's Fish Fry figures to be the most consequential in the history of the event.
"If you are really looking at winning in South Carolina, or at least placing well, you have to go to the Fish Fry," says Harrison, who is also a former DNC official. "We're the gateway to the South, the gateway to all of these primary states where there's significant African American population. If you can't come up with a message that resonates in South Carolina, that probably means you won't win the South and won't win the primary."
On Saturday, the South Carolina Democratic Party will hold its annual convention which will elect party officers. As many as 3,000 people are expected to show up, with Clyburn and Rep. Joe Cunningham kicking it off with speeches.
Running alongside the main events, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund will host a forum, the South Carolina Young Democrats are throwing an event, and several of the 2020 candidates themselves are expected to attend meet and greets and campaign rallies.
Robertson likened this weekend's array of events to a buffet because he said there will be something for everyone.
"You can get it all, and I believe that's what this Democratic convention weekend is going to be like," he said.