Joe Biden Pivots to Courting Black Voters in South Carolina

(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden warned about threats to voting rights during his first campaign stop in South Carolina, where he’s counting on his long relationships with black leaders and his link to Barack Obama to carry him in the state’s crucial early 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

“We’ve got Jim Crow sneaking back in,” the former vice president said Saturday at a rally in Columbia, comparing new restrictions on voting to the racial segregation laws of the past.

Biden capped his first week as an official candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination with a weekend trip to the Palmetto State. He pivoted from appeals to the working class in the Rust Belt to courting black voters, who typically comprise a little more that half of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina. Both groups will be key to Democrats’ chances of defeating President Donald Trump in 2020. Biden also spent part of Sunday morning at Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia.

Biden’s entry into the race has reset the campaign, which has more than 20 candidates vying for attention and money 10 months before the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in nominating process. For the first time, there’s an obvious front-runner.

Targeting Iowa

Iowa was the target this weekend for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Biden’s chief competitor at this stage of the campaign, as well as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Although Sanders has been one of the few Democrats willing to directly attack Biden, he trained his sights on Trump.

Speaking to a small crowd Saturday in the town of Perry, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Des Moines, Sanders assailed the Trump administration as “a threat to the very fabric of American democracy.”

Warren also took aim at Trump when she spoke at a packed house party in Iowa Falls on Friday night. She said that the House must take steps to remove the president from office for his 2016 campaign’s receptivity to Russian assistance in that election, as well as for Trump’s attempts to hinder the probe.

“It’s a point of principle that as a Congress, we cannot say that a president of the United States can do what Donald Trump has done, and that it’s OK with us,” she said while responding to a question about how to combat cyber attacks on the U.S.

But voters weren’t probing her on Trump -- the questions Warren faced were instead about money in politics, guns, student debt, abortion, minimum wage and sustainable farming.

Wealth Tax

In Iowa Falls and at Iowa State University in Ames, Warren received heavy applause when touting her wealth tax of 2 percent on assets above $50 million and 3 percent above $1 billion.

“I’m just tired of freeloading billionaires. Let’s get them to pay a fair share and create opportunity for everyone in this country,” she said.

In South Carolina, Biden sprinkled in mentions of Obama, the nation’s first black president, and of his friendship with South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, the top ranking black lawmaker in the House. As the rally began, television screens played a campaign video released this week that includes narration by Obama -- a sign of the former president’s support, even as he holds off endorsing in the primary.

Biden recalled joining Obama in Charleston for the funeral of State Senator Clementa Pinckney, one of nine black people killed in the June 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, watching “my buddy Barack stand up there.” In a nod to Obama’s memorable and impromptu rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Biden added: “by the way, there is amazing grace in this country, we just have to reach out and pull it in.”

‘Hell of a Guy’

While talking about the economy and the progress made during Obama’s eight years in office, clawing back from the worst downturn since the 1930s, Biden interjected that Obama is “a hell of a guy” and “one of the best presidents we’ve ever had.”

Biden also said in an interview Saturday in the Post and Courier of Charleston that he and Obama worked together to address systemic racism.

“So I think the African-American community nationwide knows who I am,” Biden said. “I’m not saying the others aren’t qualified, I’m just saying I’ve been there.”

First Candidate

Delores Lancaster, a 68-year-old retiree from Columbia, said Biden is the first candidate she’s seen.

“I’m feeling pretty good about him. I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say besides what I’ve been seeing on the TV,” she said. While lander said she’s interested in what the other candidates will have to say, “experience means a lot to me.”

Biden, 76, has had a carefully orchestrated first week of campaigning. He’s held just one or two formal events on each of the four days he’s spent on the trail, and those have all been speeches -- generally capped at about half an hour, and he’s had a teleprompter as his guide. He’s had no town hall meetings or round-table discussions so far.

‘Start With Clown’

Biden’s most unscripted moments came during a fundraiser Saturday night in Columbia.

While saying he wouldn’t try to match Trump in a contest of derogatory nicknames, he nonetheless offered one up.

“There are so many nicknames that I’m inclined to give this guy. We could just start with clown,” Biden told about three dozen supporters at a $1,000-to-$2,800 per person event.

Biden also told donors that he’s heard from 14 heads of state from around the world who’ve voiced concerns to him about Trump. That list included Margaret Thatcher, he said -- before correcting what he called a “Freudian slip,” that he was actually referring to current British Prime Minister Theresa May. Thatcher died in 2013.

The Democratic candidates have largely avoided criticizing each other so far. The only candidate who has been willing to open criticize Biden is Sanders, 77, well-known to voters after his 2016 runner-up bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and among the top-tier Democratic hopefuls this time around.

Oblique Tweak

On Saturday, Sanders left it up to a surrogate -- businessman Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream fame -- to obliquely tweak Biden during a rally at Iowa State. “He voted against Nafta before voting against Nafta was cool,” Cohen said of Sanders. “He voted against the war in Iraq.” Biden, as a senator from Delaware, voted for both.

Warren, fresh off a boost in the polls, resisted multiple opportunities Friday to take a swing at Biden or even discuss their policy disagreements.

The Massachusetts Democrat was asked at Iowa State by a student named Kyle to name a policy area where she agrees with a fellow Democrat and explain why. “Y’know what, Kyle, I’m just gonna be blunt. I’m not here to knock other Democrats,” she said.

In an interview Thursday with WIS-TV in Columbia, Biden also said he would refrain from attacking his fellow Democrats.

“I’m not going to speak ill of any Democrat during this campaign, unlike some other Democrats now, that’s not useful,” Biden said. “The last thing the Democratic Party has to do is get into a big fight. That only benefits Donald Trump.”

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