COLUMBIA, S.C. — Hillary Rodham Clinton says pay equity between men and women, more generous parental leave policies and a higher minimum wage are not issues of importance merely to women but concerns that go to the heart of why it's "hard to get ahead and stay ahead in America."
The Democratic presidential contender offered a sweeping argument at a women's conference Wednesday for why she is the rightful successor to President Barack Obama, the man who handed her a humbling defeat seven years ago in the South Carolina primary.
Clinton focused many of her remarks on women and minorities, but said their concerns make up "an American economy issue" that touches everyone.
"It's time to make the words middle class mean something again," she told more than 200 members of the South Carolina Democratic Women's Council. "They should represent a solemn promise that anyone willing to work hard can earn a decent living and a better life, not just get by paycheck to paycheck."
She added: "Nobody expects everything to come easy. That's not part of life. We know that. But it shouldn't be quite so hard to get ahead and stay ahead in America."
With that approach, the former secretary of state nodded to two constituencies that anchor South Carolina's first-in-the-South presidential primary and Obama's general election coalition, while also repeating her central campaign strategy to position herself as a middle-class champion.
It's a position she is trying to sustain despite scrutiny into the tens of millions of dollars in income that she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have generated since he left the White House in 2001. She did not take questions at the Democratic event or at an earlier lunch in Columbia, where she met six minority female business owners.
GOP White House hopeful Carly Fiorina was also in Columbia on Wednesday, trying to draw attention to her campaign as the only woman among top Republican hopefuls. Fiorina held a sidewalk news conference outside the hotel where Clinton later spoke and described her as personifying a "professional political class."
"How can we trust Mrs. Clinton?" Fiorina asked. "I think that the Republican Party needs a nominee who will ask these questions on a general debate stage."
Clinton met afterward with the Democratic caucuses of the South Carolina Legislature, where Republicans control both chambers. She then made a surprise stop in a bakery, where she sat briefly with the lone customer, Frederick Hunt of Columbia. She was slated to travel to Atlanta by private jet for a closed fundraiser Thursday.
South Carolina is particularly important for Clinton, both to prove that she can rebuild Obama's coalition and to erase any lingering effect of her stinging 2008 defeat in the state. After winning in overwhelmingly white Iowa, Obama took all but two South Carolina counties on his way to a 28-point victory, helped by wide advantages with women and black voters.
Clinton already has worked to build a network that addresses her 2008 shortfalls, even though she lacks a rival of Obama's strength at this point.
Her state campaign chief is Clay Middleton, a young, black political operative who worked for the Obama campaign. She also has the backing of Bakari Sellers, a 30-year-old African-American and Democratic up-and-comer who ran for lieutenant governor.
Women and African-American hosts figure prominently in the campaign house parties that began before Clinton's visit. And there are the women who stood and roared when she entered the room Wednesday.
Introducing Clinton, state Rep. Gilda Cobb Hunter drew a big smile from Clinton when she declared, "All of us believe that a woman's place is in the House, and in the Senate and, in case there is any doubt, also at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
In a moment of levity, Clinton noted that that most presidents "grow grayer and grayer" until "they are as white as the building they live in."
The 67-year-old grandmother continued, "I may not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I have one advantage: I've been coloring my hair for years."
Associated Press reporter Meg Kinnard contributed to this report. Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/BillBarrowAP.