CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Former Vice President Joe Biden is trying to press the reset button.
In the last primary of the four early-voting states — in the last state where former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg won’t be on the ballot — Biden is facing his last chance to restart his glitchy campaign.
The easiest way to do that? Act like Iowa and New Hampshire never happened.
For months, Biden and his supporters have been talking up his relationship with African American voters generally, and black voters in South Carolina specifically. It's been the one unambiguous advantage he’s had over his primary competition. Even as his leads evaporated across the early states, Biden and his supporters could say, “Just wait until we get to South Carolina.”
Now that he’s here, Biden is pitching the Palmetto State as the only one that matters.
“You, in fact, are likely to determine who the next president will be, and that all starts here in South Carolina, for real,” Biden told a crowd at a Monday evening event at the College of Charleston. “Now we have a state that looks like America, made up of people that are diverse.”
But the months of insistence that South Carolina will be Biden’s firewall comes at a cost: Just like a fourth-place finish in Iowa and a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire were all the more destructive to Biden’s campaign because he used to be the front-runner, anything short of a commanding result in South Carolina will be hard for them to spin as a positive.
On Biden’s side is the fact that his support is deep here. His backers want to show the country, and especially the overwhelmingly white early-voting states, that Barack Obama's vice president isn't going anywhere.
“There’s a reason why we feel good about what he is able to do here,” said state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, a Biden surrogate. “We want to win going away and be able to show the country, we’re back, and not only we’re back but we never left, don’t count us out.”
Until recently, it didn’t look like Biden was vulnerable here, but Sen. Bernie Sanders has been bearing down on him, especially after a blowout win in Nevada. What had been a 20- or 30-point lead for Biden as recently as November has shrunk a virtual dead heat in polls this month. Less than a double-digit win would do little to quiet Biden’s critics, especially as a recent Morning Consult poll found Sanders leading Biden nationally among black voters.
Although South Carolina tends to be a more conservative state, Sanders surrogate and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner is on the ground reminding older voters that Sanders often polls higher among younger African American voters.
“I ask my elders to really, really look at what the young people in their lives are saying that they need,” she said. “If they take their lead, they will see very clearly, Bernie Sanders is really in a class by himself when it comes to a person that is standing up to change the material conditions in people's lives.”
Biden surrogates, including a bunch of black elected officials, have flown into the state en masse to make the case for him. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking black official in Congress and an influential figure in his home state of South Carolina, will reportedly endorse Biden on Wednesday.
Biden spent Monday seemingly answering the criticisms that have plagued his candidacy. As if to react to the dig that he’s been too rambling and unfocused, he gave a quick and rousing address at a state party dinner, before declaring proudly as he left the stage that he had one minute and 22 seconds out of his allotted speaking time left on the clock.
But he also reinforced why people in early states have been so uneasy about him. He asked the room to support him in his race for U.S. Senate — a gaffe Sanders and Trump supporters quickly picked up on.
Earlier, as if to answer the criticism that often comes from President Trump that Biden is too low-energy, the candidate flashed his fiery side at the college event, yelling at the top of his voice about the need for gun control and challenging gun manufacturers, “I’m coming for you, and I’m going to take you down.”
Damon Fordham, a history professor at the Citadel and a Biden supporter, said he was happy to see the candidate “showed more fire” than usual.
“We're going to need that this time around,” he said. “For one thing, he has a realistic chance, and number two, he's not promising some way-out, pie-in-the-sky, utopian mumbo jumbo.”
Charleston residents Vernon Green, 61, and Rhodee Washington, 58, were bopping their way out of the college gym as a cover band played a version of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”
Washington said Trump’s attacks on Biden make her want to support him more, because she thinks Trump is intimidated. She also wants an experienced hand.
“Yeah, we have a lot of candidates,” Washington said. “I mean, really, when I think about Biden, I think about experience.”
Green cocked his head back and shouted, “I’m ridin’ with Biden.”
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to guests during a campaign stop at the College of Charleston on February 24, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)