COLUMBIA, S.C. — As Hillary Rodham Clinton struggles to contain the uproar over her use of a private e-mail account while secretary of state, the atmosphere facing her top political advisor at a friendly event Wednesday in this early primary state showed growing anxiety among Democrats.
John Podesta, Clinton’s top campaign official, faced a number of sharp questions from core supporters about their front-runner at a senior center here: When would she make a final decision about the Keystone XL Pipeline? Would she truly take on Wall Street and big money? When would she roll out a comprehensive plan for Social Security?
The e-mail controversy also came up as Joyce Knott — who said she is “100 percent” in Hillary’s camp — worried that the campaign would be drowned out by “all the negative media.”
Podesta promised a more robust response from Clinton surrogates to crowd of about 80. “We’re going to get more voices out there,” he said, calling the attacks on Clinton partisan.
After the event, asked by a reporter if Clinton regrets her use of a private server, Podesta laughed. “Wouldn’t you?” he said.
In some respects it’s been a good week for Clinton in South Carolina as she campaigned elsewhere. She picked up the endorsement of one-time adversary Jim Hodges, South Carolina’s last Democratic governor, who co-chaired President Obama’s national campaign committee in 2008. Another former South Carolina Democratic governor, Richard “Dick” Riley, who worked as education secretary in Bill Clinton’s cabinet, also pledged his support.
Hodges said Wednesday that Clinton offers a fresh start as the first female president – rebutting the idea that people are sick of the well-known candidate. “She showed a real compassion, a real feel for the issues,” Hodges told reporters of his impression of Clinton when he worked for Obama. She said Clinton would lead “with heart and with head and has the capability to get things done.”
But some backers here worry that Clinton continues to repeat some of the mistakes of her 2008 effort in the state, which she lost handily to Obama. One prominent Clinton supporter described themselves as more “disappointed” than worried, since most still see her as the only viable option, even if Vice President Joe Biden or another Democrat jumped into the race.
“They don’t have energy here whatsoever,” said the supporter, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss Clinton’s campaign effort in the state. “It’s just so controlled. There’s nothing fluid about this campaign at all.”
At the community center, Podesta disagreed, saying the campaign’s energy is good and growing. “I think our organizing is going very well,” said Podesta, pointing to numbers put out by the campaign showing that more than 100,000 Democrats in South Carolina have already been reached through grassroots efforts.
Podesta laid out a number of key Democratic planks that drew applause. He said Clinton would focus on Social Security, racial inequality, energy, the flood of money in campaigns and the pushback of voting rights. Pushed on specifics, Podesta demurred on some issues. Specific plans would be rolled out before the first Democratic debate in October, he said.
Doris Wells, a retiree who attended the event, said she shakes her head at how Clinton handles things at times. “You can’t control everything all the time and that’s her problem,” Wells said. “She’s a control freak, and she knows better. It’s going to hurt her somewhat.”
On Friday, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders is expected to draw a huge crowd at an event nearby. One questioner told Podesta she’d be there, too. Clifford Donley, an Air Force retiree, railed against Wall Street and the inequity he’s seen in South Carolina. He questioned Clinton’s ability to rein in big money. Hodges, who was moderating the questions, moved on.
Donley said after the event he was sympathetic to Clinton, but he appreciated Sanders’s directness on issues. “What can he say?” Donley said. “The candidate isn’t here.”