Hillary Clinton, at times using a southern drawl, knocked Republicans for blocking equal pay legislation on Wednesday in remarks that appeared to goad 2016 GOP candidates into a debate on the issue.
“I don’t think I am letting you in on a secret when I say way too many women earn less than men on the job,” Clinton told around 200 activists from two Democratic women’s groups. “We could fix this if Republicans would get on board. We, in fact, could fix this today, but they won’t.”
Without mentioning them by name, Clinton faulted Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul – all 2016 Republican hopefuls – for past comments on equal pay.
“One even said efforts to guarantee fair pay reminded him of the Soviet Union,” she said. “And to that I say, what century are they living in?”
Clinton has made the possibility that she would become the first female president of the United States a central part of her 2016 campaign, something she didn’t do in 2008. She regularly emphasizes her role as a mother and grandmother, and Democrats see debates like equal pay a key way to protect – and possibly widen – the gender gap between Democrats and Republicans.
In late 2014, congressional Republicans blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, calling the law redundant given current anti-discrimination laws. Democrats argue the law is aimed at closing the wage gap for working women.
Clinton’s comments came during the biggest event of her first trip to South Carolina, the first-in-the-south primary state. She last visited the Palmetto State as a candidate in 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama convincingly won the state in what became a messy and divisive race, and she has not been back since.
In a lighter moment, Clinton said that while most presidents leave office with white hair, she’s “been coloring [her] hair for years.”
The line earned loud applause from the audience of mostly older women.
The former first lady is not the only presidential hopeful in Columbia on Wednesday. Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive and Republican presidential candidate, also held events in the city and knocked Clinton for her campaign’s strategy of keeping the media at arm’s length.
“Anyone who runs for president – anyone – needs to answer basic questions about their record, about their positions, about their finances,” she said.
Allison Moore, the Republican National Committee spokesperson, also faulted Clinton’s equal pay push, arguing that Clinton “will say anything to benefit herself politically.”
Before her speech in downtown Columbia, Clinton visited a Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles, a small restaurant in a strip mall outside the city. Followed by a small group of reporters, Clinton shook hands and took pictures with patrons, including Latoya Gates and Shaniqua Coley, two Army soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Jackson.
Clinton also spent time with Dayzjohna Roberts, a recent graduate from W.J. Keenan High School who was celebrating the event over chicken and waffles.
Clinton joked with Roberts’ parents and had Nick Merrill, her spokesman and traveling press secretary, take a photo of the group.
The former secretary of state came to Kiki’s to hold a roundtable with six minority women small business owners, including Kitwanda “Kiki” Smith, the owner of the chicken and waffle shop, about the “challenges” facing business owners.
Clinton will also speak to a meeting of the House and Senate Democratic caucus at the South Carolina State House on Wednesday. The trip, according to aides, is aimed at both highlighting an issue she cares about – equal pay – and invigorating the state’s grassroots organizers.
Clinton’s Democratic critics in the state, like Dick Harpootlian, a well-known Democratic donor and supporter of Vice President Joe Biden, have said that the grassroots is not nearly as engaged and excited about Clinton as they need to be.
“That is what this is all about,” Harpootlian said about engaging the grassroots. “This is an early primary state where her ability to generate enthusiasm is key. And I don’t see that yet.”
That said, even Harpootlian admits that Clinton is the race’s overwhelming frontrunner and likely will be the party’s nominee.
“Unless Vice President Biden gets in, she is going to be the nominee,” he said.