NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, fresh off a distant second-place finish in the Nevada caucuses, hightailed it to a church in South Carolina, where the fate of his White House aspirations rests in the hands of black voters.
South Carolina is the first real test with that key Democratic group for the party’s presidential contenders, including Sen. Bernard Sanders, who has emerged as the early front-runner.
The avowed democratic socialist has yet to allay concerns, partly based on his performance in the 2016 primaries, about his ability to win over black voters. Democrats will need their support to defeat President Trump in November.
However, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are in worse polling shape among black voters, who made up about 60% of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016.
Billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer, meanwhile, has emerged as the wild card. He peeled away support from Mr. Biden after going on a spending spree in South Carolina that focused aggressively on black voters.
No one has more riding on winning the Palmetto State primary Saturday than Mr. Biden, so it wasn’t a surprise that his first stop was at the Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston.
“This isn’t just an election; this is about the soul of this country. And if we get rid of Donald Trump, we have a tremendous opportunity to make great steps forward,” said Mr. Biden, standing behind the pulpit in front of a wall with the phrase “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.” His wife, Jill, and granddaughter Finnegan sat in a front pew.
“Look, it is time we give the marginalized and demonized and the isolated [and] the oppressed their full share of the American dream, rip out the roots of systemic racism in this country because the country now has seen the ugly side again,” Mr. Biden said. “They have seen it in a way, and average Americans around the country are going ‘Enough, enough, enough.'”
Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, said South Carolina is “really make or break” for Mr. Biden.
“He has really staked his entire campaign on being the successor to Barack Obama, carrying on Barack Obama’s legacy and getting support from African American voters,” Mr. Knotts said. “So he has got to win.”
The final tally Saturday will provide insight into the diversity of the candidates’ appeals and set the tone for the March 3 Super Tuesday states.
First on the calendar, however, is a debate Tuesday in Charleston. Although he is not competing in the South Carolina primary, the lineup includes former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Meanwhile, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, a veteran power broker in South Carolina and on Capitol Hill, has considered endorsing Mr. Biden.
Mr. Clyburn said he plans to make an endorsement Wednesday and warned that Mr. Sanders could hurt down-ticket candidates and jeopardize Democrats’ chances of defending seats in the House and flipping seats in the Senate.
“I do believe it’ll be an extra burden for us to have to carry,” Mr. Clyburn said on ABC’s “This Week.” “This is South Carolina, and South Carolinians are pretty leery about that title ‘socialist.’ And so I think that that would be a real burden for us in these states or congressional districts that we have to do well in.”
Outside the church, Mr. Biden told reporters that he hopes to earn Mr. Clyburn’s support and sought to remind voters that he was more loyal to Mr. Obama than Mr. Sanders was.
“Bernie and I have real disagreements on support for Barack,” Mr. Biden said. “Bernie wanted to primary Barack in 2012. I’ve had his back the whole time.”
The Atlantic reported last month that Harry Reid, as Senate majority leader, had to persuade Mr. Sanders not to launch a primary challenge to Mr. Obama.
Mr. Biden’s strong ties to Mr. Obama have helped him overcome parts of his record in the Senate, including the 1994 Crime Bill, which activists blame for exacerbating mass incarceration of minorities.
“We know him, and one of the most impressive things to me is that Barack chose him out of a lot of people he knew, and that goes a long way with me,” the Rev. Isaac J. Holt Jr. told his congregation Sunday. “African Americans are the absolute majority of Democrats [in South Carolina]. If we vote collectively and turn out strongly will decide [who is] the next president of the United States.”
“So make sure you wake up June Bug, Jimmy Lee, Lodi Dodi and everybody Saturday morning and take them out to the polls,” he joked.
Campaigning on behalf of Mr. Biden over the weekend, Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware touted the former vice president’s ties to Mr. Obama and said he coined them “JoeBama.”
“Barack Obama surrounded himself with the best people he can find, and he started by making sure that the person by his side would be a vice president named Joe Biden,” Mr. Carper said.
Mr. Obama, though, has refused to endorse Mr. Biden or any of his opponents in the primary race.
Surrogates for other candidates also fanned out across the state. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts headlined events for Ms. Warren.
Scholar-activist Cornel West campaigned on behalf of Mr. Sanders, as did Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.
Mr. West attended a morning service in North Charleston, as did state Rep. Jerry Govan, chair of the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus, who spoke on behalf of Mr. Steyer.
“People understand that folk here in South Carolina are not going to be influenced by what happened in Nevada, Iowa and New Hampshire,” Mr. Govan told The Washington Times. “They are going to make up their own minds.”
For Mr. Biden, it could come down to voters like Frank Russell, a church deacon who said he considered voting for Mr. Steyer but decided he couldn’t because he was concerned that someone with so much money might not be able to relate to the struggles of everyday people.
He said he also likes Mr. Sanders but finds it hard to believe that Republicans would be willing to work with him on anything if he is elected.
So he’s planning to vote for Mr. Biden.
“You can fake a lot of things, but sincerity is hard to fake,” said the 61-year-old retired employee of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. “There is just an authenticity about him.”
⦁ David Sherfinski contributed to this report.
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