WASHINGTON -- Pauline Brown said she nearly broke down in tears when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders walked through her front door last month. Her longtime partner, Eugene Smith, said he stood in disbelief.
They'd had little success getting South Carolina leaders to pay attention to the dirty water in their city of Denmark, so they never expected anyone running for president to show up to see for himself.
"A presidential candidate that comes to your house to see how you're living, I just couldn't believe it," Smith told The State on Thursday. "It meant a whole lot to both of us. For over 10 years, nobody believed us. It was astounding to him."
On his May 18 trip to Denmark -- where less than 4,000 people live in rural Bamberg County -- Sanders moved on from his visit with Brown and Smith to speak at a larger campaign event. There, the Independent senator from Vermont promised as president he would make the country's water infrastructure a priority. He said he'd even sign a law ensuring safe drinking water for every American -- and he'd name it in Brown's honor. A week later, Sanders returned to deliver cases of bottled water to Denmark residents.
Sanders is not the only 2020 Democratic hopeful to make the beleaguered town a key stop in the Palmetto State.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., stumped in Denmark in April soon after announcing his candidacy and he, too, delivered cases of water to the community. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, recently spoke at Voorhees College, Denmark's historically black private college.
Sanders' outreach there, however, does signal a more aggressive campaign style than the one South Carolinians saw in 2016, when Hillary Clinton crushed him in the S.C. Democratic primary and became the party's nominee.
Three years ago, many voters were left with the stark impression Sanders didn't take South Carolina seriously, or might have intentionally spent more time and resources elsewhere at the expense of winning the state's critical early primary election.
Sanders' staunchest allies disagree and are loath to suggest their candidate is now trying to make up from the last time around.
"I want to make it clear: it's not that Bernie didn't care about South Carolina in 2016," said state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, who originally endorsed Clinton in 2016 but ultimately switched over to Sanders and is endorsing him again.