The Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina

The Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina
© Greg Nash

CONWAY, S.C. —  Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Fox News poll: Biden ahead of Trump in Nevada, Pennsylvania and Ohio MORE was the headline attraction here at a Thursday evening rally, but it was a celebrity supporter, actress Vivica Fox, who cut to the heart of the matter.

“We are counting on you guys to start to get the 2020 election back on track,” Fox told the audience at Coastal Carolina University, shortly before introducing Biden.

Right now, Biden’s fate lies in the hands of Palmetto State Democrats.

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Winning the South Carolina primary is, at this point, the whole ballgame for the former vice president. 

The firewall that his supporters have talked about for so long needs to hold in Saturday’s primary. If it does not, Biden’s campaign is as good as over.

Front-runner Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump faces backlash after not committing to peaceful transition of power Bernie Sanders: 'This is an election between Donald Trump and democracy' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump stokes fears over November election outcome MORE (I-Vt.) has two first-place finishes and one near-tie for victory from the first three contests. Biden, who led national polling averages for months, has come fourth, fifth and a distant second in those three races, respectively.

The polls in South Carolina give grounds for both reassurance and nervousness for Biden supporters.

By some measures, Biden’s support in the state remains robust. But the polls are troublingly volatile. The four most recent surveys in the state, all conducted within the past week, have measured Biden’s lead as high as 20 percentage points and as low as 4 points.

Sanders is making a serious play in the state, drawing almost 2,000 people to a rally in Spartanburg on Thursday night and planning another, likely larger event in the state capital of Columbia on Friday afternoon.

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Biden has long relationships in the state to buttress his chances — the most conspicuous example being his endorsement by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a political icon in the state, who announced his support for the former vice president on Wednesday.

“I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us,” Clyburn said. 

Biden made sure to mention having been “friends for so long” with Clyburn at the start of his remarks here.

The clash between Biden and Sanders in South Carolina is a window into a much larger struggle in the Democratic Party. 

If Sanders were to win, it would not just deal a final blow to Biden’s bruised presidential hopes. It would also show that Sanders is expanding his constituency and that his left-wing platform can take over the party from the center-left forces that have dominated it since Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonAnxious Democrats amp up pressure for vote on COVID-19 aid Barr's Russia investigator has put some focus on Clinton Foundation: report Epstein podcast host says he affiliated with elites from 'both sides of the aisle' MORE was president.

On the other hand, a big margin of victory for Biden would revitalize his chances and reestablish him as the main centrist alternative to Sanders. This claim has been challenged of late by the exorbitant campaign spending of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and by the strong early results posted by former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBillionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November Buttigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice MORE.

Furthermore, if Biden were to outperform expectations and relegate Sanders to a poor second, it could call into question how well Sanders might do in some of the southern states that vote on Super Tuesday, March 3.

Alabama and Arkansas are among the states voting then, in addition to the two biggest prizes of California and Texas where Sanders is stronger.

Biden, speaking at this university 10 miles from Myrtle Beach, took aim at Sanders only a handful of times, and rarely with real anger. 

The closest he came to aggression was asserting that he felt resentful of Sanders for reportedly considering a primary challenge to President Obama in 2012. He also hit Sanders’s record on gun control.

Biden’s brand has never been that of an attack dog, however. He prefers to paint himself as the candidate who can reach out to opponents and bring normalcy back to the White House after what he sees as the aberrational nature of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Trump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance MORE.

He extolled the virtues of “decency,” as he often does, insisted that he was the candidate who could produce “results” and said — in response to a question that got perhaps the single loudest cheer of the evening — that he would consider Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaBlack stars reimagine 'Friends' to get out the vote Obama shares phone number to find out how Americans are planning to vote Michelle Obama: 'Don't listen to people who will say that somehow voting is rigged' MORE as his running mate “in a heartbeat” if he thought there was any chance the former first lady would say yes.

That was enough for some voters.

Don Yonce, an 82-year-old former business owner, told The Hill that it would be foolish to push “a rookie” toward the presidency and that Biden “knows the ropes.” 

The former vice president, Yonce insisted, was “the only one on the Democratic side” who has the requisite experience to hold the nation’s highest office.

Coleman Randall, a 65-year-old retiree from the nearby town of Little River, said that he had decided to vote for Biden only within the last week. 

He said he had at various times considered supporting Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline Democratic senators ask inspector general to investigate IRS use of location tracking service MORE (D-Mass.) and that he had been interested in Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHundreds of lawyers from nation's oldest African American sorority join effort to fight voter suppression Biden picks up endorsement from progressive climate group 350 Action 3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing MORE (D-Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony Booker3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing Bipartisan praise pours in after Ginsburg's death DHS opens probe into allegations at Georgia ICE facility MORE (D-N.J.) before they dropped out. In the end, he said, he had greater "trust" in Biden.

Biden needs to depend on voters like those if he is to hold the Sanders tide at bay.

Right now, it is not certain that he can do so.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.