STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Joe Biden says he's sorry. The Democratic presidential candidate spoke to a largely African American crowd in Sumter, S.C., over the weekend, and he offered his first direct apology for remarks about working with segregationist senators early in his career. One of Biden's rivals for the Democratic nomination, Kamala Harris, has been attacking Biden's past stances, both on working with racists and on school busing. Scott Detrow is covering the campaign for NPR News. Scott, good morning.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: This is a change from what Biden initially said.
DETROW: Yeah. When this first came up, not only did Biden not apologize, he said that New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who was one of the first candidates to criticize these comments, should be the one apologizing, and Biden stuck with that through the debate and since. But several polls recently have shown that Biden's national lead, while he still does have the lead, it's getting a lot smaller. So this weekend, he shifted his tone.
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JOE BIDEN: Was I wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to people that I was praising those men who I successfully opposed time and again? Yes, I was. I regret it. And I'm sorry for any of the pain or misconception I may have caused anybody.
DETROW: And this was part of a broader speech where Biden defended his track record, especially the eight years he spent as Barack Obama's vice president, and that is an association he has - in his campaign, have repeatedly pointed to in response to this busing story and this story about his praise for these fellow colleagues.
INSKEEP: How significant is it that Joe Biden would backtrack in this way?
DETROW: I think we can learn a lot politically about this. He is not someone who apologizes for past remarks or past actions. He's kind of like Donald Trump in that specific way. He just doesn't do it; he moves forward. So I think it's a sign that his campaign knows that they have lost some ground over the last few weeks. He had held a very large lead over the rest of the field in those early national polls, and he is still in first, but the gap is narrowing.
And not only that, but recent surveys have shown that it's California Senator Kamala Harris who's the candidate who has gained a lot of ground in that period. And she is picking up support from black voters especially, who have so far been overwhelmingly supporting Biden. So I think the fact that he made the statement and that he gave the speech in South Carolina is key. That is the first early state with a significant number of black voters, and that is going to be the key battleground for which candidate earns the support of black voters.
INSKEEP: And it's a reminder that the African American vote is a really vital part of the Democratic coalition. Biden was seeking black votes, not exclusively, but seeking black votes in South Carolina while other candidates, if I'm not mistaken, were appealing to a meeting on - focused on black voters in New Orleans.
DETROW: Yeah. And you're right; most campaigns agree that they think that the candidate who gets the most - the biggest share of the black vote is going to be the Democratic nominee, and that's - no question about that. So this was the Essence Festival in New Orleans. This is an event focused on black women in particular.
Kamala Harris was one of the people who spoke there. She rolled out a major new policy - $100 million dollars in federal grants aimed at narrowing the racial wealth gap and home ownership gap. And that would be focused on areas where lenders and sellers discriminated against black buyers. And she is one of several candidates lately to focus on eliminating housing disparities. So that was interesting.
The other thing that struck me is that she's really overhauled the way that she's campaigning recently. She talks - she frames her pitch in much more personal terms - talks about her life and how she sees herself fitting into a long line of black leaders and really personalizing her pitch in a way that she just didn't seem comfortable to before. And I think that says a lot about how she sees her path forward in this crowded field.
INSKEEP: Thanks so much. That's NPR's Scott Detrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.