By MEG KINNARD
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Sen. Kamala Harris returned to South Carolina on Friday, using her first visit to this early-voting state as an official presidential contender to tap into a sorority network that could prove crucial as she develops her campaign.
In a room festooned in pink and green — the signature colors of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the country's oldest black sorority — the newly minted presidential candidate spoke at the Pink Ice Gala, a scholarship fundraiser.
"For we, the members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., we stand on the shoulders of women who were leaders, who 111 years ago said to us, we must honor sisterhood, and we must honor service," Harris said of AKA, a stronghold in the black community, which she pledged as an undergraduate student at Howard University. "That is truly part of the essence of our sorority, which is to stand together as sisters, with our heads up, challenging others to do like we do, knowing that we must serve others."
Harris launched her campaign earlier this week on what would have been the 90th birthday of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. She plans a formal campaign launch in Oakland on Jan. 27.
This is Harris' first trip since the fall to South Carolina — a crucial proving ground, particularly for Democratic presidential hopefuls testing out their messaging with a largely black electorate.
Harris, a first-term senator and former California attorney general known for her rigorous questioning of President Donald Trump's nominees, would be the first woman to hold the presidency and the second African-American.
Harris, 54, who grew up in Oakland, California, is one of the earliest high-profile Democrats to join what is expected to be a crowded field, portraying herself as a fighter for justice, decency and equality in a video distributed by her campaign as she announced her bid earlier this week.
"They're the values we as Americans cherish, and they're all on the line now," Harris says in the video. "The future of our country depends on you and millions of others lifting our voices to fight for our American values."
Skipping the formality of forming an exploratory committee, instead going all in on a presidential bid, Harris joins what is expected to be a wide-open race for the Democratic presidential nomination. There's no apparent front-runner at this early stage, and Harris will face off against several Senate colleagues.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York have both formed exploratory committees. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are also looking at the race.
If Booker enters the race, he and Harris could face fierce competition for support from black voters.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who unsuccessfully sought the 2016 Democratic nomination, is also considering a campaign. Several other Democrats have already declared their intentions, including former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and former Obama administration housing chief Julian Castro.
On Friday night in Columbia, Harris stood arm in arm with hundreds of AKA members, holding hands and singing the sorority's song.
"I just love her," longtime AKA member Genice Thompson said of Harris, noting that the senator has a built-in support system among sorority members across the country. "I don't know if she'll win, but I just love her."
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