Clinton comes to Georgia looking to build a Southern firewall

Clinton in Atlanta

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton will make her first public appearance of the campaign in Atlanta at 2:30 p.m. Friday for a rally in the gymnasium of Clark Atlanta University. Clinton’s previous visits to metro Atlanta have been for private fundraisers.

Hillary Clinton is closing out a pivotal month with a visit to Georgia on Friday as she looks to put the squeeze on her last remaining serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.

With Vice President Joe Biden out of the race, a solid debate performance calming nervous Democrats and a contentious hearing over her role in the deadly 2012 terror attacks in Libya in the books, she arrives in Atlanta intent on maximizing her sizable advantage with minority voters over Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and solidifying her support in the South.

Her strategy to turn Georgia and other “SEC primary” states into a Southern firewall to halt a Democratic adversary is not without a dose of irony. It was Clinton’s dismal performance in South Carolina and subsequent defeats to Barack Obama in Georgia and other Southern bastions in 2008 that devastated her earlier bid for the White House.

This time around, she's relying on her popularity with black voters, who make up the bulk of the Democratic primary electorate in most Southern states. The Clintons have a deep well of support in the African-American community, and a CNN poll this month gave her a 50-point lead over Sanders in the critical early-voting state of South Carolina.

To press her advantage even more, she’s announcing a new group — African Americans for Hillary — at her Friday event at Clark Atlanta University.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, one of Clinton’s most high-profile supporters in Georgia, said Sanders’ struggle to gain support among minority leaders boils down rather simply.

“The Clintons have got a long-standing relationship with the black community and it’s going to pay off,” he said. “And candidly, Senator Sanders is a good, bright and able man — but he doesn’t have that relationship.”

For Sanders, it underscores a persistent concern he's struggled to put to rest. His campaign has hired additional staffers in South Carolina and rumbled about targeting Georgia next, and he has more frequently invoked issues such as criminal justice reform and other policies that resonate with the black community.

But he hasn't been able to expand upon his largely white, liberal base centered in the Northeast. The crowds that have flocked to his speeches have been overwhelmingly white, including those that greeted him during a recent two-day swing through South Carolina and his lone visit to Atlanta.

Sanders, admitting as much, has sought help in search of ways he can be more appealing to minority voters.

"I want some ideas, as somebody who was arrested 50 years ago fighting for civil rights, trying to desegregate schools in Chicago, who spent his whole life fighting against racism, I want your ideas," he said at a recent forum for Latino voters. "What do you think we can do? What can we do?"

Clinton’s big October

It has been an epic month for Clinton, who started October bogged down by sagging poll numbers and nagging questions about her use of a personal email server during her stint as secretary state.

A strong debate performance in Las Vegas, defined by an exchange with Sanders in which he said people are tired of hearing about her "damn emails," helped ease the minds of concerned Democrats. Biden ended his public agonizing last week when he announced he wouldn't run for president, and two lesser-known Democratic contenders also dropped out of the hunt.

And Democrats rallied to Clinton’s side in the wake of hours of barbed questioning by House Republicans in a hearing about the deaths of four Americans in 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Her GOP critics have tried to link her decision-making in securing the diplomatic mission to the deaths.

Clinton’s supporters speak hopefully about the chance that a strong showing during the March 1 primaries in Georgia and other Southern states, closely followed by votes in Florida, North Carolina and Louisiana, can push her closer to the 2,200 delegates needed to lock up the Democratic bid — and help her avoid the protracted battle that doomed her in 2008.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democratic preacher who leads Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, said there’s been little buzz in the black community about any candidate other than Clinton.

“She’s done a great job addressing the issues that concern the African-American community,” said Warnock, who recently ruled out a challenge to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. “Bill Clinton’s administration represented a sea change in terms of African-American appointments. And that deep affection continues.”

She has no campaign staffers focused on Georgia yet, but her campaign expects to fan out more aides across the South as the primaries draw near.

Clinton spokesman Tyrone Gayle said she’s is the only candidate with a policy agenda aimed at black families and that “addresses the issues that keep them up at night,” including a push to expand access to the ballot box and her college affordability initiative.

A ‘layer cake’ of scandal

Republicans are bracing for the prospect of a unified Democratic front even as their crowded field of presidential candidates has divided the GOP electorate.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, long a Clinton foil, said the former secretary of state’s appeal in the black community will help her bury Sanders. But it will do her little good in the general election, he said, comparing her to a “layer cake” of scandal stretching from Benghazi to questions about the $2 billion raised by the Clinton Global Initiative.

“You can’t give Bill Clinton $2 billion and assume it’s going to work,” he cracked.

The Republican National Committee seconded that notion. Spokeswoman Ali Pardo said Clinton’s campaign is “overshadowed by unanswered questions” that raise doubts about her ability to lead.

Few understand the challenges ahead for both Clinton and Sanders quite like former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, himself an ex-insurgent presidential candidate with a New England base. Asked about his Vermont neighbor’s chances, he offered an understatement: “It’s very hard to become president when you’re not the establishment figure.”

"She's had a great turnaround in her campaign," Dean added of Clinton. "I'm not really thinking she needs a firewall. I think she's going to do just fine. Nobody ever has it locked in. But I think she's going to win because she's the most qualified person to be the president."