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2020 Democratic contenders link arms in MLK Jr. Day march

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Democratic presidential candidates hit pause on their recent feuds Monday as they walked shoulder to shoulder through the streets of South Carolina’s capital city to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and rally around their push to defeat President Donald Trump in November.

The truce was illustrated when Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren shook hands at Zion Baptist Church, then linked arms as they marched with the other candidates later in the morning. It was a gesture that didn’t materialize last week on a debate stage where the leading progressive candidates sparred over whether Sanders once privately said a woman couldn’t be president. Warren declined to shake Sanders’ outstretched hand after the debate.

“This is THE handshake,” said presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii. From there, the candidates marched to the Statehouse, a building steeped in the history of South Carolina’s racial struggles.

For a few hours at least, the squabbling among the White House hopefuls over who is best positioned to defeat Trump gave way to a united condemnation of how they perceive he has handled America’s racial divide. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said there aren’t “'many sides' to blame when one side is the Ku Klux Klan,” referencing Trump’s comments following a deadly 2017 clash between white supremacists and anti-racist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has said he decided to run in 2020 following the violence in Charlottesville, said Trump has “given oxygen” to racism. Warren pledged to work toward what she characterized as a more tolerant society, noting “America is ready to move past this dark moment of Donald Trump.” Sanders encouraged the crowd to follow King’s legacy and “stand together."

“Let us go forward and complete the journey," he added. In his rally speech, California businessman Tom Steyer referenced the tension between Warren and Sanders while dropping a reference in a previous debate to Democratic rival Pete Buttigieg's high-dollar fundraisers.

“This is not the time for the people who are running with each other to bicker with each other or complain. It's not a time for wine caves and old stories and old videos," he said. “This is a time where we have a job: Beat Mr. Trump."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, the lone remaining black candidate in the race, said progress made during the Civil Rights Movement has been stymied by Trump. “We can’t go from hope and change to fear and settle for that,” he said.

Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, marched and attended a prayer service in South Carolina but left for Iowa before the speaking program began. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C, on Monday afternoon, pausing in front of the monument and the wreaths to pay their respects.

In the closing days before the first votes are cast in the 2020 Democratic presidential contest, the party's leading hopefuls split their time between the critical early voting states of South Carolina and Iowa at events celebrating King. While Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats vote first for their nominee, South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary is a crucial proving ground for a candidate's mettle with black voters.

Columbia's King Day at the Dome, a notable event for Democratic politicians , began in 2000 as a reaction to state lawmakers' decision that year to keep the Confederate battle flag flying from the Statehouse's copper-covered cupola that sits atop the dome. Tens of thousands of people marched through Columbia’s downtown from the prayer service to the Statehouse.

Lawmakers eventually agreed to a compromise that moved the flag to a flagpole, albeit one prominently situated in front of the building. The deal also recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the state and created Confederate Memorial Day.

In 2015, following the racist massacre of nine Bible study participants at a historic black church in Charleston, lawmakers voted to remove the flag from the grounds. In years past, many Democratic presidential hopefuls have made their way to the north-facing facade of the Statehouse, including John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Last year, Sanders and Sen. Cory Booker, who has since dropped out of the 2020 race, attended.

Many of the candidates in the wide fieldalso traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday for the Brown and Black Forum, recognized as one of the nation's oldest minority-focused presidential candidate events of its kind. Traditionally a debate, the event has evolved into a one-on-one candidate forum. Several candidates fielded sharp questions about some of their past decisions in public office. Biden defended the Obama administration's record on immigration. He declined again to disclose how he advised Obama on deportations, but Biden said his administration would focus on “family reunification” and not detain asylum seekers at the border. “They show up” for hearings, he said.

Klobuchar said she regretted early in her Senate career supporting a measure to make English the nation’s official language. Buttigieg, questioned about South Bend’s struggle to retain black police officers, said, “This is an area where I’ve admitted we’re not where we want to be.”

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is not competing in the early-voting states but has put some of his multimillion-dollar ad spending there, walked along the route of Little Rock’s annual “marade” (a march and a parade) marking the King holiday.

“Reminds me of New York,” Bloomberg quipped, tossing candy into crowds and posing for pictures. Tech businessman Andrew Yang is on a 17-day bus tour of Iowa and planned to remain there.

Associated Press writers Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark., Zeke Miller in Washington and Bill Barrow in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”

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