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At MSNBC forum, Democratic candidates court black voters

Facing the looming prospect of replacing the first black president, Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley Friday focused mainly on appealing to African-American voters.

ROCK HILL, South Carolina -- The three Democratic presidential candidates made a concerted pitch to black voters Friday at an MSNBC candidate forum in this first-in-the-South primary state. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley fielded questions on issues including ISIS, the Keystone pipeline and how to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, but focused mainly on appealing to African-American voters facing the looming prospect of replacing Barack Obama, the first black president.

For front-runner Clinton, whom polls show holds a commanding lead among black voters nationally and in South Carolina, it meant heaping praise on Obama’s record and sharing personal stories of her meetings with the families of young black people lost to police violence.

“I mean, why? It makes no sense why that happened,” Clinton said of the shooting of Walter Scott, who was shot and killed as he was running away from police in North Charleston last April. 

For Sanders, it meant tailoring his populist economic pitch more specifically to the concerns of the black community. “We are going to invest in education and jobs for the kids of this country rather than jails and incarceration,” the Vermont senator said, insisting that he has “the economic and social justice agenda now that once we get the word out, will, in fact, resonate with the African-American community.”

For O’Malley, who badly trails both Clinton and Sanders in the polls, it meant embracing the Black Lives Matter movement and recasting his record as a former mayor of Baltimore, which came under scrutiny and criticism after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody there last April.

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"I wasn't able to make [the city] immune to setbacks, as we saw in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death,” O’Malley said, defending policies during his time as mayor that had been considered heavy handed by some.

“We had become the most violent, addicted, and abandoned city in America,” O’Malley said of Baltimore. “We had open-air drug markets that had taken over whole sections of our city where the poorest neighbors of ours couldn't go outside with peace any day of the week.”  

Each candidate sat alone with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who grilled each one politely but pointedly on their records and vulnerabilities.

Clinton, Maddow noted, had been disingenuous in defending her husband Bill Clinton’s decision to sign the Defense of Marriage Act as a way to thwart a constitutional amendment codifying marriage as being between one man and one woman. No such amendment was introduced during Clinton’s two terms in the White House, Maddow noted. Clinton insisted conservative activists were doing so behind the scenes.

Maddow pushed Sanders on his record of support for gun rights, an issue that provokes sharp divisions between black voters, who widely support gun safety measures, and white voters who firmly support ready access to firearms. Sanders insisted his record as a senator from a state that had very lax gun laws would give him the credibility to reach consensus on the issue. "I believe we can bring together 70% people who are tired of horrific massacres,” he said.

All three candidates thrived in the format. O’Malley, who has struggled to break through despite a dogged campaign, appeared relaxed, focused and knowledgeable – insisting he, not Sanders, was the more credible progressive alternative to Clinton.

“It does not hold that a return to the old ideologies of the past or debating the pros and cons of socialism is going to solve our problems,” O’Malley said – a knock on both Clinton and Sanders, who calls himself a Democratic socialist.

Clinton, who commanded the stage at the first Democratic debate last month in Las Vegas, was strong in this format, too, even as she defended her record of support for Wall Street and for the death penalty, which has disproportionately been used against blacks. She said capital punishment was appropriate in some extreme cases, like the Boston Marathon bombing or the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina last June.

Sanders, who admitted he could look “too grumpy, too serious,” brought laughs to the audience during a lightning round where he was asked what he missed most from the pre-technology era.

“I miss the fact that when I'm in a car or at home, there are not all kinds of buzzes and noises going off making me a nervous wreck,” Sanders said.