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The Past Week Has Been The Most Important So Far For The Biden Campaign


For former Vice President Joe Biden, this past week has likely been the most important week of his political career. After poor performances in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, all of his hopes now lie with South Carolina. That state holds its primary tomorrow, and Biden needs a decisive win to resurrect his campaign. NPR's Asma Khalid followed the former vice president as he campaigned across the state.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: For the 77-year-old Biden, who is on his third presidential run, this week essentially began with the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday.

So we're about to walk into the media filing center at the debate here in Charleston. And a lot of candidates have a lot at stake, but I think the candidate who has the most at stake is the former vice president, Joe Biden. Here in South Carolina, a majority of the voters that are going to be participating in the Democratic primary are African American, and so he's hoping for a better finish here. So let's head on inside and see how he does.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Live from the Gaillard Center in Charleston, S.C., this is the CBS News Democratic debate.


KHALID: Biden had to contend with a jarring new reality - he was no longer the front-runner. The moderators weren't turning to him with the frequency they might have five months ago. So Biden had to jump in and ask to be heard.


GAYLE KING: I promise, Mr. Vice President, we are going to get to you today. I promise.

JOE BIDEN: You keep promising me that, but you haven't done it yet.

KHALID: The following day, Reverend Al Sharpton hosted a breakfast with presidential candidates. Sharpton has become one of the most trusted black leaders that every Democrat in this race wants to court. As Biden sat beside him onstage, Sharpton praised the former vice president for being a loyal ally.


AL SHARPTON: I've known Joe Biden for decades.

KHALID: And then Sharpton took a jab at progressives.


SHARPTON: So y'all can have all these progressive arguments; I'm trying to get to progress, not to the title.


SHARPTON: Some folks are progressive about everything but race. They've got every agenda but a black agenda. He has always dealt squarely. Let us hear from the former vice president, Joe Biden.


KHALID: Also, that same morning, Biden got a major boost, an endorsement from the most influential Democratic politician in the state, Congressman Jim Clyburn.

We've been traveling with the Joe Biden campaign, and we just got off the bus in Georgetown, which is this picturesque historic city in South Carolina, right on the water's edge. And there's a whole bunch of people in line waiting to go inside of this Biden rally. And it's not huge, right? I mean, this is a midweek, midsize rally. But we just want to pick people's brains on what they're thinking about the upcoming primary.

One person we spot is Jack Scoville. He's the former mayor of Georgetown.

JACK SCOVILLE: Yeah. I'm what's locally called a yellow dog Democrat, somebody who would vote for a yellow dog before they'd vote for a Republican.

KHALID: So have you decided who you're going to support yourself on Saturday?

SCOVILLE: I'm leaning real heavily towards Joe Biden. I'm kind of here for him to close the deal with me.

KHALID: What do you like about him?

SCOVILLE: I just think Joe's the guy that can beat Trump, has the best chance of beating Trump.

KHALID: We just got back. We were in New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa. And the vice president did not have particularly strong finishes in any of those three first states. What does that make you consider when you're thinking about the vice president in terms of his electability, his ability to beat President Trump?

SCOVILLE: You know, he did pretty good in Nevada. And...

KHALID: I mean, he still lost by 20 points.

SCOVILLE: Yeah, but that's a caucus. That's a screwy system. That's just not a good system. And I don't know. I mean, again, they say South Carolina is the first - you know, where you have a substantial African American, you know, electorate. And we'll see. But I think at the end of the day, you know, the moderate wing of the party needs to get behind one candidate, and that's either at this point Buttigieg or, you know...

KHALID: What did you think about Buttigieg? I mean, is he anybody you've - I mean, he did pretty well in Iowa and New Hampshire.

SCOVILLE: Well, what's bugging me most about him is he's so articulate. I know that sounds crazy. But after I listen to him, I think, this guy is just too good, you know? He's just so smart and all. Joe's got that stutter. And he's - you know, stumbles around a lot, but that just makes me more - makes him more likable.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting) Way to go, Joe. Way to go, Joe. Way to go, Joe.

KHALID: We head inside this historic Southern brick building, up a staircase and into a ballroom. Debbie Smith heads the county Democratic Party, and Vanessa Green is a lifelong Democrat in town. Both are still unsure if Biden is the right candidate. Green is African American, and even though Biden insists he has more support with black voters than anyone else, Green says there is someone not on the ballot here that she's also considering.

VANESSA GREEN: Well, I think that we need to look at Bloomberg. I think that it may come to that. I mean, I think that we might have to hold our noses, but I think that this is going to be a really tough race.

KHALID: So why do you - what do you like about Mayor Bloomberg?

GREEN: I think he's a very good manager. I think sometimes he's tone-deaf when it comes to people who are different, but he's been a rich man for a long time, and so there's a little tone-deafness. But I do think that he is moderate enough to be able to win over Democrats and Republicans.

KHALID: You were shaking your head when she mentioned Bloomberg.


KHALID: Who is your candidate?

DEBBIE SMITH: Well, I'm still undecided. I have narrowed it down. First of all, I got to say - today, seeing Joe Biden up close, he was great. I had had my concerns about him, some of his TV appearances where he seemed a little off. But that was the old Joe today. So...

KHALID: What do you like about Joe Biden?

SMITH: He's sincere. You feel compassion coming from him. I just believe that he is a true man who wants - just wants to do what's right for the nation. And he's just a - and of course, he and Obama were, you know, side by side. And he's done a lot of good things as a senator, and he's got great foreign policy chops.

KHALID: But Debbie Smith also thinks Elizabeth Warren is a force of nature who could get a lot of things done.

What would make you decide what to do on Saturday, officially?

SMITH: I wish I knew what would make me decide. I go back and forth and back and forth. My decision was going to be who did I really think could win, but I think in the end I'm going to go with my heart. And my heart at this moment is going in two different directions.

KHALID: The next day, our next stop - Coastal Carolina University, for another rally. Biden is far more comfortable in South Carolina than he ever was in Iowa or New Hampshire. He often talks about health care and gun control. And he brings up Barack Obama's name a lot. But in South Carolina, that relationship should not be underestimated. For months, black voters have told me how much they appreciate how Biden served as Obama's faithful No. 2. On this night, Biden told the crowd how his mom convinced him he should seek the vice presidency.


BIDEN: She looked at me - I swear to God; absolutely true story - she says, Joey, the first black man in history has a chance to be elected president, says he needs you to win Pennsylvania, Ohio and some other states, and you told him no?


BIDEN: I said, damn, Mom, what are you doing? So I picked up the phone and said, OK, Barack, go ahead and vet me.


BIDEN: Best decision I ever made - one of the finest men I've ever knew.

KHALID: The voters in the crowd laugh and smile with Biden. Polls suggest the former vice president will win the state. But the thing is, a few days later, on Tuesday, 14 additional states vote. And so even if Biden has a resounding victory here, there are legitimate questions about whether he has the infrastructure, the money and the grassroots support to compete with someone like Bernie Sanders or Mike Bloomberg just a few days later on Super Tuesday.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.


Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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