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Biden Expects To Rebound In South Carolina, But Rivals Are Circling


Three weeks from today, South Carolina Democrats cast ballots to pick a presidential nominee. Former Vice President Joe Biden has held a wide lead in the state for months. But after Mr. Biden slipped to fourth place in Iowa, his rivals working furiously to try to narrow his lead among the state's black voters. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Women dressed in shades of red are filing into a gymnasium in Columbia, S.C.


UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Singing) Everybody loves the sunshine.

SUMMERS: They're here for Go Red Columbia Day, which raises awareness about cardiovascular disease. Four activists from the group Black Women For join in. They've endorsed Elizabeth Warren.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are you ready to party?



SUMMERS: Events like these, though subtle in nature, are one of the ways that Warren's campaign is seeking a foothold in South Carolina. Black voters make up just under two-thirds of the Democratic electorate here. And Warren is specifically targeting black women. Vilissa Thompson is an activist who lives in Winnsboro, S.C., and thinks that Warren is talking about the right issues.

VILISSA THOMPSON: South Carolina likes to be a little behind the curve at times. But I really feel that she could be the candidate that could really rile us up to get us where we need to be as a state and throughout the country.

SUMMERS: This is a state where Joe Biden has maintained a wide lead. And his campaign has said South Carolina would be a springboard as the race moves to more diverse states. Biden supporters say that results in Iowa and New Hampshire don't say much about how he'll perform here. This is State Senator Marlon Kimpson.

MARLON KIMPSON: We welcome a day where we can have a sense of normalcy, stability, experience, competence. These are the things that Joe Biden has demonstrated. He was not President Barack Obama's vice president choice by chance. Now, should he rest on that? No.

SUMMERS: Tom Steyer has been among the candidates most aggressively courting black voters in South Carolina. At last night's debate, Steyer made clear that he believes he has ground to gain here. He pointed out a recent poll that he said shows him with support from nearly a quarter of black voters in the state. Brandon Upson is Steyer's national organizing director and a South Carolina native. He thinks Biden is vulnerable.

BRANDON UPSON: Especially when he said that it was a gut punch for him to lose Iowa - that folks here in South Carolina lost more confidence in his ability to bring this thing home. And I truly believe that I see it every day.

SUMMERS: They're so focused on the state that Steyer will spend the day before New Hampshire's primary campaigning in South Carolina. Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders have their sights set on younger voters here. And all of the campaigns are pointing out the fact that many South Carolinians haven't decided who to support. Naida Rutherford is one of them. Bernie Sanders is among the candidates that has caught her eye. She had been a Kamala Harris supporter.

NAIDA RUTHERFORD: Bernie has a proven record. I mean, he has done things, and he's willing to speak up for the people who don't have a voice at some of the tables that he's sitting at. So that is very appealing to me.

SUMMERS: But really, she told me she is focused on who can beat President Trump.

RUTHERFORD: He is in the White House. And so whoever is going to change that, that's who I want to vote for. That's who I want to get behind.

SUMMERS: Even Tameika Isaac Devine hasn't decided who to vote for. As the only black woman on Columbia's city council, she's met most of the major candidates and even hosted events for some.

TAMEIKA ISAAC DEVINE: I tell my husband - I said, it's kind of like you're the popular girl high school, and everybody's trying to ask you to the dance.

SUMMERS: She'd come close to coming off the sidelines once. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker dazzled her. She'd wanted to back him, but he dropped out of the race soon after. With three weeks to go, she's got a short list, one she is still paring down. Juana Summers, NPR News, Columbia, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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