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Biden Campaign Tries To Rebound From 'Gut Punch' — Particularly In South Carolina

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Former Vice President Joe Biden heads into the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday after taking what he calls a gut punch, a fourth-place finish in Iowa. But now his campaign is saying a third- or fourth-place finish next week would be OK, and they're pointing to his strength in more diverse states, especially South Carolina. It holds its primary at the end of the month, and it's considered something of a firewall for the Biden campaign. To understand how that's holding up, we're going to turn to NPR's Juana Summers who's in Columbia.

Hey there, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hey there.

CORNISH: Why is South Carolina, in particular, important to Joe Biden?

SUMMERS: Yeah, so South Carolina is the first primary with a large population of black voters. But if you look at the calendar, after South Carolina comes a slew of Southern primaries, where black folks also make up large shares of the vote, and Biden's campaign has framed the state as a launching pad.

Now, he's held a lead here since he entered the race for a couple different reason. He benefits from wide name recognition. Biden has spent decades traveling to the state and building relationships. And he also earned a stamp of approval for serving in the White House as Barack Obama's vice president. So because of all those things, there are pretty high expectations for them here. The case that Biden's been making throughout his campaign is that he's the most electable Democrat to take on Trump in a general election.

CORNISH: Now, since electability is such a big part of Biden's pitch to voters, how is his camp kind of spinning his performance in Iowa?

SUMMERS: Well, they say it doesn't really matter. They say that even if he isn't the top candidate in Iowa or New Hampshire, which votes ahead of South Carolina, it won't damage his standing here. I talked with state Senator Marlon Kimpson, and he represents a majority black Charleston district. He's backing Joe Biden.

MARLON KIMPSON: If you look at the demographics of Iowa and New Hampshire, those people, those states don't look like South Carolina and, quite frankly, don't look like the rest of the country.

SUMMERS: The point that he's making there, just to put it a little more bluntly, is that overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire don't tell us anything about how a candidate performs with black voters. He also pointed out something else that I've heard from other Biden backers. He was wary that some of the field's most progressive candidates, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, could actually make good on the sweeping remake of the United States government that they're selling.

CORNISH: Who's his competition in South Carolina? Who's putting in the effort to win voters there?

SUMMERS: Yeah, so other candidates are being pretty aggressive here. They think there's a lot of opportunity for them to make some moves. And they point out to the fact that even though there's three weeks to go until the primary, most South Carolinians have not made up their minds.

Now, of course, most candidates are in New Hampshire participating in the debate, but there is a lot of action here this week. The group Black Womxn For is in the state campaigning on behalf of Elizabeth Warren this weekend. Bernie Sanders has surrogates on the ground. And a superPAC supporting former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is pouring just a lot of money into South Carolina's media markets.

CORNISH: If Biden performs poorly leading up to South Carolina, are there any candidates pitching themselves essentially as an alternative to him, right in that kind of moderate-ish lane?

SUMMERS: So I would probably point to Tom Steyer. He's the billionaire investor and activist who was the force behind the ad campaign to impeach President Trump. And even before he started his presidential campaign, he spent a lot of time in South Carolina. And I was on some of those trips with him. His campaign staffers have been really open that they see a path here, and not just one to chip away at Biden's support, particularly among black voters, but they think they can win this state. He's got more than 90 staffers on the ground. They're going to add more. And they point to the fact that many of their on-the-ground organizers are working in communities they're from.

I spoke with Johnnie Cordero, who's a pastor who chairs the Democratic Black Caucus, and he said he's backing Steyer because of his authenticity.

JOHNNIE CORDERO: The one thing that I found, almost universally from everybody I've talked to, is - and this is a word I'd like to see used more - they say they can feel him, and he feels us. That's what we need.

SUMMERS: And they'll see more from Steyer. On the day before New Hampshire voters head to the polls, Steyer will be here in South Carolina instead.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Juana Summers on the campaign trail in South Carolina.

Thanks so much.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.