Biden Wins in South Carolina, Adding New Life to His Candidacy

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Joseph R. Biden Jr. scored a decisive victory in the South Carolina primary on Saturday, reviving his listing campaign and establishing himself as the leading contender1 to slow Senator Bernie Sanders as the turbulent Democratic race turns to a slew of coast-to-coast contests on Tuesday.

Propelled by an outpouring of support from South Carolina’s African-American voters, Mr. Biden easily overcame a late effort by Mr. Sanders to upset the former vice president in a state he has long seen as his firewall. The victory will vault Mr. Biden into Super Tuesday, where polls open in just over 48 hours, as the clear alternative to Mr. Sanders for establishment-aligned Democrats.

As much as the results here offered new life to Mr. Biden, the one-time front-runner before he faltered in the fall, they dealt a perhaps fatal blow to the two moderates. Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar, who had been hoping to overtake Mr. Biden as the candidates of the party’s center, again proved unable to win nonwhite voters.

Perhaps even more consequentially, Mr. Biden’s triumph here also increased pressure on Michael R. Bloomberg to best Mr. Biden in the 15 states and territories voting Tuesday — or consider exiting the race.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a progressive rival to Mr. Sanders, also showed no strong appeal to African-American voters in the Republican-leaning state. But unlike the moderate candidates, Ms. Warren was unlikely to face similar pressure to make way for Mr. Biden, and some party leaders hope she will stay in the race and complicate Mr. Sanders’s efforts to unify the left.

For Mr. Biden, though, Saturday night brought a moment to savor.

Low on cash and without a victory in the first three contests, Mr. Biden desperately needed South Carolina, a state for which he has long had a personal affection, to resurrect his third and perhaps final quest for the presidency.

Facing a humiliating fifth-place finish in New Hampshire earlier this month, Mr. Biden flew out of the New England cold before the polls had even closed there and effectively staked his campaign on South Carolina, telling supporters in Columbia that evening that he was counting on the state’s more racially diverse set of voters to offset his dismal showing in the first two states, both heavily white.

Then, after finishing a distant second to Mr. Sanders in Nevada, he came directly to South Carolina. He campaigned almost exclusively here while other Democrats fanned out across the much larger map of states that vote Tuesday.

In the debate this week, Mr. Biden promised to win South Carolina and projected confidence that he would prevail with African-Americans.He did both, claiming black voters with 60 percent, far better than Mr. Sanders’s 17 percent.

“Today is a great day because, I tell you what, the full comeback starts in South Carolina,” Mr. Biden, anticipating victory, said at a campaign rally in North Carolina earlier in the day. “We’re going to win South Carolina. And the next step is North Carolina.”

The results here represented at least an interruption of what had loomed as a march to the nomination by Mr. Sanders. South Carolina was the first state where Mr. Sanders did not finish at the top, and his distant second to Mr. Biden came after he had made a late effort to score a win.

Mr. Biden has led in every poll of South Carolina, but after his Nevada landslide, Mr. Sanders decided to try to deliver a finishing blow against Mr. Biden. Mr. Sanders increased his television advertising in the state and intensified his campaign schedule, with the goal of denying Mr. Biden the chance to reignite his candidacy and perhaps wrapping up the nomination fight by the middle of March.

In South Carolina, Mr. Biden also confronted an unlikely threat in Tom Steyer, a former hedge fund investor from California who poured millions of dollars into courting black voters, and in some cases putting influential state lawmakers on his campaign payroll. But Mr. Steyer appeared to be falling far short of the breakthrough his advisers believed was possible.

Mr. Steyer’s cash could not overcome two more powerful assets that Mr. Biden possessed in South Carolina: longstanding relationships and a direct connection to former President Barack Obama, who is beloved by black voters.

Mr. Biden was also aided immensely by his close bond with Representative James E. Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress and most influential Democrat in South Carolina.

After months of remaining neutral, Mr. Clyburn offered Mr. Biden a full-throated endorsement on Wednesday before a bank of television cameras and photographers at a news conference outside Charleston. On Saturday, nearly 50 percent of South Carolina voters said Mr. Clyburn’s support was an important factor in their decision, according to exit polls.

Even more crucial to Mr. Biden was his service as vice president under the nation’s first black president, a relationship that earned him a reservoir of good will in a state where 56 percent of the Democratic electorate on Saturday was African-American, according to exit polls.

“He was Obama’s vice president and he stuck by him,” said Luther Johnson, a Columbia resident who came to see Mr. Biden at a black-owned barber shop on Friday.

Mr. Biden was noticeably more at ease as he wound his way through South Carolina’s churches, barber shops and barbecue joints than he had been in Iowa and New Hampshire. As he likes to remind people here, he has vacationed in the state’s Lowcountry for decades and, as a young senator mourning the death of his first wife, forged a close friendship with Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina’s long-serving senator. Indeed, Mr. Biden eulogized both of the state’s 20th-century political titans, Mr. Hollings and the Dixiecrat-turned-Republican Strom Thurmond.

But Mr. Biden did not last long enough in his first two presidential campaigns to make it to South Carolina — Saturday marked his first win there in his three White House bids.

His back-against-the-wall victory was in keeping with South Carolina’s tradition of turning around presidential campaigns. George W. Bush in 2000, Mr. Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 all revived their candidacies in the state after losing decisively in New Hampshire.

Mr. Biden’s victory Saturday is no guarantee he will be catapulted to the nomination in the same fashion. Even as voters were going to the polls on Saturday, Mr. Clyburn offered a blistering assessment of Mr. Biden’s organization.

“We will have to sit down and get serious about how we retool this campaign,” the lawmaker said on CNN, adding: “I’m not going to sit back idly and watch people mishandle this campaign.”

Mr. Biden’s operations have been sorely lacking in Super Tuesday states, local Democrats say. Mr. Sanders is poised to rack up hundreds of delegates that day, including in large states like California, and Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Warren are also in contention to claim delegates.

Mr. Buttigieg is also hoping to be competitive, but on a conference call on Saturday his campaign aides declined to say how many delegates he would need to win to remain viable.

“We really believe this is about limiting Senator Sanders’s lead and making sure that it is possible for an opposing candidate to close the gap in the remaining states that become more friendly,” said Michael Halle, a senior adviser to Mr. Buttigieg.

For his part, Mr. Sanders left South Carolina to rally thousands of voters in Boston on Saturday, a not-so-subtle attempt at beating Ms. Warren in her home state and chasing her out of the race. But speaking to reporters in Columbia, Ms. Warren would not say Massachusetts was a must-win state for her. “I know that Massachusetts is a very progressive state and progressive ideas are very popular,” she said. “And so I’m sure that’s why Bernie is campaigning there.”

And in a sign that Mr. Bloomberg had no intention of yielding to a potential Biden comeback, his campaign announced on Saturday that it had purchased a lengthy block of airtime on multiple national networks for a three-minute commercial on Sunday, styled as an address by Mr. Bloomberg to the American people about the looming threat of the coronavirus. The ad showed Mr. Bloomberg speaking directly into the camera against a backdrop resembling the Oval Office, presenting himself as a strong leader for a time of crisis.

Signaling that he is looking ahead on the primary calendar, Mr. Bloomberg has announced plans to spend the night of Super Tuesday in Florida, the huge March 17 primary state where Mr. Sanders is seen as vulnerable and television advertising often decides elections.

But the impact of Mr. Bloomberg’s paid advertising could be sorely tested across the primary map on Super Tuesday if Mr. Biden’s victory in South Carolina leads to several days of wall-to-wall media coverage treating him as a resurrected political powerhouse.

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