ROCK HILL, South Carolina – MSNBC's First in the South Democratic Forum Friday provided each of the three candidates a moment to highlight their strengths and address some of their biggest weaknesses, and it gave hints at how the race is changing as we head into a new phase of the campaign.
Here are three moments from Friday's forum, hosted by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, that help explain where each candidate wants to go from here.
Bernie Sanders and his underwear
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said that the biggest misconception people have about him is that he’s “grumpy” and “too serious.”
Well, he may only have himself to blame for that. In his nearly four decades in politics, Sanders has generally worn a demeanor that says he’s too consumed by the fate of the middle class to worry about the frivolity of personal anecdotes or humor.
But Sanders is starting to accept that Americans want to know the people they’re considering for the presidency, not just their policy agendas. As his wife begins appearing more on the campaign trail, Sanders’ first TV ad --- which got a new voice-over from actor Reg E. Cathey, who plays Freddy on “House of Cards” -- leans heavily on his upbringing in Brooklyn and personal story.
This softer side of Sanders was on full display Friday night as he cracked jokes about his underwear and his foul mouth that left the audience in stitches. Then he turned personal, discussing his seven “beautiful grandchildren who are the joy of my life.”
“That’s Bernie being Bernie,” campaign manager Jeff Weaver told MSNBC later. So can we expect to see more humor on the trail? “We don’t plan to be spontaneous,” he replied.
O’Malley and the kilt
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley just could not catch a break – until maybe Friday night. The candidate has been stuck at 1% in most national polls, and his dogged attempts to change the trajectory of the race have gone nowhere.
But in a one-on-one setting with Maddow, he came alive.
“I think this was the first time the viewing public and the American people have tuned and seen that they actually more than just two choices,” he told MSNBC after the forum. “Tonight, people zeroed in for the first time on their three choices. I feel like tonight is a very, very important moment for our campaign.”
He had strong moments, including on the Iraq War and a shot he took at Sanders for being a newcomer to the Democratic Party. O'Malley also funny moments discussing a kilt that was given to him.
Rep. James Clyburn, the most powerful Democrat in South Carolina, who is staying neutral in the primary, said the former Maryland governor was one of his biggest takeaways from the night. “I think O’Malley did himself well,” Clyburn told MSNBC.
O’Malley could be due for a upswing, but he’ll have to first prove Friday was not a fleeting moment or a product of that particular format.
Clinton and the mothers of gun violence victims
The former secretary of state showed Friday night why she is the Democratic front-runner, especially in South Carolina, where black voters make up a majority of Democratic primary voters.
She discussed a recent meeting she had with the mothers of young black people killed by police and gun violence in what proved to be Clinton’s strongest moment of the night. It will likely become a part of her message to black voters in future appearances.
Her strength here is a major reversal from 2008, when Clinton lost South Carolina handily to Barack Obama and was accused of making racially insensitive comments. But the former secretary of state has become the de facto heir to the Obama coalition, and she co-opted the innovative organizing model that helped Obama dominate in the state in 2008.
Georgia Democratic Party Chair DuBose Porter, who supports Clinton, told MSNBC that Clinton’s support among African Americans in the South will break any momentum Sanders might have coming out of the earlier two states in the nominating process. “No matter what happens in New Hampshire and Iowa, they head down here to South Carolina and then the rest of the Southern states on March 1st, and that will propel her to the nomination,” he said.