Joe Biden is looking to revive his presidential campaign on Saturday in South Carolina, as Democratic voters head to the polls for the final nominating contest before Super Tuesday on March 3.
The “Palmetto State” is seen as a crucial test for the Democrats vying to take on President Donald Trump in November. Sixty per cent of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina are expected to be African-American — a significantly higher share than in the other early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
Democratic presidential candidates who have commanded the support of African-Americans have historically gone on to win the party’s presidential nomination.
Mr Biden, who was vice-president under Barack Obama, leads in the polls in South Carolina, despite finishing a disappointing fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary earlier this month.
The former vice-president came in second in last week’s Nevada caucuses, but was more than 16 points behind Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. A self-described Democratic socialist, Mr Sanders has risen in national polls in recent weeks, and is seen as the favourite to win the delegate-rich states of California and Texas on Super Tuesday, when Democrats in more than 14 states and territories will cast their ballots.
In South Carolina, Mr Biden leads the field on 36.8 per cent, followed by Mr Sanders on 24.3 per cent and billionaire activist Tom Steyer on 12.8 per cent, according to the latest average of polls compiled by the website Real Clear Politics.
For months, the Biden campaign has maintained that winning South Carolina is key to Mr Biden’s bid for the Democratic nomination, and will propel him to further success on Super Tuesday, especially in southern states with large numbers of African-American voters, such as Alabama, Arkansas and North Carolina. He has long been popular with many African-Americans, in part due to his association with Mr Obama.
After seeing Mr Biden at a barber shop in Columbia, South Carolina, on Friday, Jerial Dingle, a truck driver, and Gerard Thomas, a retired line worker, both said they would vote for him.
“The person that we have in office now is about himself and himself only. Joe Biden is not that way,” said Mr Thomas, 61, who described Mr Biden as a “God-fearing man”.
He added: “It is not about colour or race, it is going to be about who does the best for us.”
Mr Dingle, 55, agreed, saying: “It deals with the matters of the heart. To me, [Joe Biden] has the heart.”
But Mr Biden, who was widely considered the Democratic frontrunner for much of last year, has seen his lead in South Carolina narrow in recent weeks as Mr Sanders picked up support, especially among younger voters, and Mr Steyer reaped the benefits of spending millions of dollars on advertising and a grassroots operation in the state.
Millicent Middleton, a pastor at the New Birth Christian Center, said at an event in North Charleston earlier in the week that while she had initially backed Mr Biden, she had switched to supporting Mr Steyer.
“I was riding with Biden,” Ms Middleton said. “I had to re-evaluate that, because like most people, we correlate Biden with Obama . . . but Biden is not Obama.
“Tom Steyer was the only one that stood up against Donald Trump and the Republicans and not only started impeachment, but he pushed it all the way through until something happened,” she added, in a reference to the investor’s founding of the political organisation Need to Impeach.
Pete Buttigieg, former South Bend, Indiana mayor; Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator; Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota senator; and Tulsi Gabbard, former Hawaii congresswoman, are also on the ballot in South Carolina. Despite participating in the last two televised presidential debates, Michael Bloomberg, former New York City mayor, will skip South Carolina and instead face his first big test at the ballot box on Super Tuesday.
While South Carolina will not hold a Republican primary, Mr Trump visited the state on Friday night to fire up his base. Some 13,000 people attended the president’s rally in North Charleston, where Mr Trump encouraged Republicans to vote in Saturday’s Democratic primary for the candidate who he was more likely to defeat in a general election.
The president repeatedly polled the crowd on whether “Crazy Bernie” [Mr Sanders] or “Sleepy Joe” [Mr Biden] was the weaker Democratic candidate.
“Who do I want to run against?” Mr Trump asked, to cheers from the arena. “Who is easier for us, not me, for us to beat?
“I think maybe Crazy Bernie has it,” the president added. “They think Bernie is easier to beat.”