Biden Confounds Critics as Fans Welcome Hugs and Overlook Gaffes

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(Bloomberg) -- Major Ginger Tate fought back tears as she told Joe Biden how she waited six years to meet him. They exchanged challenge coins -- hers from her service in the South Carolina Army National Guard and his from his time in the White House -- then embraced in a long hug.

It was Biden at what his supporters say at his best -- making deep, personal connections with voters.

But just moments before, Biden also showed what some critics say is his most exasperating side. Jalon Roberson, president of Limestone College’s black student union, asked him: Why should black people remain loyal to the Democratic Party given the enduring education and wealth gaps?

Biden Confounds Critics as Fans Welcome Hugs and Overlook Gaffes

Biden never directly answered. Instead, he talked about the need to inspect candidates’ records. He launched into an extended defense of the 1994 crime bill, passed before Roberson was born, and then concluded by asserting racism was a “white man’s problem.”

Biden’s two-day swing through South Carolina this week, during which he hosted four town halls and took questions about climate change, health care and student debt, demonstrated why his front-runner status has some voters cheering and others scratching their heads at why the former vice president’s time in politics hasn’t expired.

He worked the crowd and the rope line: He smiled for selfies, he signed photos and he embraced those who wanted hugs.

“You wish you could hug me?” he asked a voter in Rock Hill. “I wish I could hug you too.” They then hugged -- despite complaints that marred the launch of his candidacy from women who said his touchy-feely style is outdated and unacceptable in the #MeToo era.

When he took questions, though, he meandered. He talked about political bygones. He promised his subsequent answers would be shorter, and then they would stretch on for 10 minutes.

Competitors Wait

As the Democratic primary race tightens, Biden’s rivals are hoping his gaffes, his lack of discipline and voter concerns about his age to outweigh the view among many Democrats that he is the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump. But more than a dozen voters who showed up at his events in South Carolina said none of his perceived shortcomings concerned them.

For Biden, 76, maintaining his support among black voters like Roberson and Tate is critical for both the primary fight and the general election. In South Carolina, where more than 60% of Democratic primary voters are black, they could be an important firewall for him — especially if he fails to meet expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Biden still leads in all the major polls in early primary states. But political strategists and activists in Iowa and New Hampshire say Elizabeth Warren is rapidly gaining ground on Biden with a superior ground game. His widest lead is in South Carolina, where a Post and Courier-Change Research Poll from earlier this month found Biden led with 36% followed by Warren with 17% and Bernie Sanders with 16%. Among black voters, Biden garnered 45% of support.

‘He’s So Passionate’

“What I see in that is he can go on and on because he’s so passionate,” said John Moore, a 22-year-old from Hendersonville, North Carolina. “The reason he can talk so long about ending gun violence is because in the 1990s, he actually passed legislation that banned assault weapons.”

Moore was referring to the controversial 1994 crime bill, which Biden wrote and which also included a 10-year ban on assault weapons.

Moore, who has come to South Carolina to see Biden as well as other 2020 Democrats such as Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders, said he was most impressed with Biden.

“Their answers were a lot shorter than his,” he said. “They were mostly talking points. He was the most genuine candidate that I’ve seen out of all of them.”

Still, others worry that Biden’s long-winded answers exacerbates his propensity for gaffes. On Thursday, The Washington Post reported Biden has told an inaccurate story about traveling to Afghanistan to honor a Navy captain, most recently last weekend in New Hampshire. Biden brushed aside the report, saying the main point of his story was “absolutely accurate.”

“He’s got to be careful,” Larry Bounds, 65, of Greer, South Carolina, said. “We’ve had several years now of a person who’s not careful with what he says. We don’t need to continue that tradition.”

Jane Roosevelt, 59, of Greenville added: “It won’t lose my vote, but I’m worried that it might lose younger people.”

Connecting With Voters

Roosevelt, like other supporters, emphasized Biden’s experience, and his ability to connect with voters. The gaffes, they added, pale in comparison to Trump.

“You are my man,” Mary Means, 80, blurted out when she was called on to ask a question at a Wednesday town hall in Spartanburg. The crowd cheered, and Biden laughed, before Means asked him about his plans to bolster cybersecurity protections.

Means, who is black, said she’s mostly concerned about foreign policy, and believes Biden is best prepared to address it. She was also alienated by Harris and Booker, the major African-American candidates in the race, after they criticized Biden at the debates.

“Both of them turn me off when they attack Joe,” she said. “My thing is, if you climb the ladder, climb on your own merits. Don’t climb by trying to push somebody else down.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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