FLORENCE, S.C. — Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has South Carolina mostly to herself two days before the first-in-the-South primary, and she's using it to capitalize on her advantage over Bernie Sanders with black voters.
Clinton played up her allegiance to President Barack Obama at a rally Thursday and pledged to continue fighting for tougher gun laws — two arguments that resonate with the African-American voters who wield tremendous influence in Saturday's primary.
"I'm really proud to stand with President Obama, and I'm really proud to stand with the progress he's made," she said in Kingstree, South Carolina. "I need your help, starting with this primary on Saturday."
The Vermont senator, meanwhile, is spending Thursday traversing the Great Lakes region in states that hold early March primaries with much whiter electorates than South Carolina and the Deep South, where Clinton maintains a strong enough lead that could help her establish a clear earned-delegate boost in the coming weeks.
Clinton also said she wants a genuine liberal to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the Feb. 13 death of conservative icon Antonin Scalia.
"I sure hope the president chooses a true progressive who will stand up for the values and the interests of the people," Clinton said of a seat that will determine the ideological tilt of a court left with a 4-4 split between liberals and conservatives.
Those comments came after White House officials told the Associated Press that the president's list of potential nominees includes Nevada's Republican governor, Brian Sandoval. The president is locked in high-stakes gamesmanship with Senate Republicans, who insist they will not give any Obama nominee a hearing.
On guns, Clinton pledged to take on the firearms manufacturing lobby. "I know how hard this is politically," she said in Kingstree.
The issue takes on special significance in South Carolina, a state shaken in June when a white gunman killed the pastor and nine others at a historically black church in Charleston.
Clinton has for weeks highlighted Sanders' Senate votes against certain firearms bills, prompting the senator to explain that he has a lifetime D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association.
She left the attacks Thursday to Sen. Cory Booker, who told a Florence, South Carolina, crowd that Clinton is "running against a man who voted against the Brady bill five times, voted for one of the worst pieces of gun legislation to come through congress, I hurt over that."
Ben McGill, an undecided voter from Andrews, South Carolina, suggests Clinton's tactics have worked. "I do think she has more of an interest in gun control," he explained Thursday. McGill added that the issue is personal for him because his elderly aunt and uncle were injured in a Baltimore shooting earlier this week.
Clinton's appearance about 70 miles north of Charleston was the first of four stops Thursday. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has multiple appearances, as well. Sanders is scheduled to return to South Carolina on Friday. In the meantime, rapper Killer Mike of Atlanta is campaigning here on his behalf.
Clinton's busy Thursday schedule follows a private fundraiser Wednesday in which she was interrupted by a protester who took issue with a 1996 speech she delivered on crime policy.
"They are often the kinds of kids that are called 'superpredators.' No conscience, no empathy," Clinton said at the time. "We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel."
A video of the fundraiser shows a young woman interrupting Clinton and asking her to "apologize to black people for mass incarceration" and using the "superpredators" description.
In a statement released by her campaign Thursday, Clinton said she "shouldn't have used those words, and I wouldn't use them today."
Most of Clinton's schedule this week has taken her to majority black communities where Obama trounced her in 2008 on his way to a 29-point statewide victory. This time, with the advantage, leaving Sanders to prove he can expand his base beyond his massive crowds that typically are overwhelmingly white, even in states with significant black populations.
Sanders insisted that he is not writing off South Carolina or any of the Deep South states with upcoming primaries. "We have waged a very, very vigorous campaign; we have picked up a lot of support," he said Wednesday, pointing out his initial single-digit polling in South Carolina. "We have closed the gap very, very significantly."
Yet many South Carolina voters say they are simply more familiar with Clinton.
"It probably would matter to the citizens of Williamsburg County" if Sanders campaigned there, said Barbara White, a 55-year-old Kingstree resident who came to hear Clinton. "Everybody here is for Hillary anyway."
Barrow reported from Columbia, South Carolina. Associated Press reporter Meg Kinnard contributed to this report from Kansas City. Follow Barrow and Lucey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP and https://twitter.com/Catherine_Lucey .