COLUMBIA, S.C. — The campaign schedule threatened to conspire against Joe Biden this weekend amid simmering controversy over his invocation of segregationists, as the former vice president was suddenly just one of a crowded crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls here.
But while some of Biden’s vulnerabilities have been exposed, it is clear that most of his rivals are reluctant to exploit them directly — at least for now.
Since entering the presidential race two months ago, Biden’s biggest strength has been his perceived strength. His poll numbers showed not just a double-digit lead among Democrats nationally and an advantage in most of the early voting states, but that the former vice president is seen as the strongest general election opponent against President Donald Trump.
But the whirlwind weekend of nearly all-candidate cattle calls in South Carolina offered a real test for Biden. Perhaps no early voting state is as favorable to him right now as the Palmetto State, thanks to decades of relationships and a reservoir of goodwill from his service as No. 2 to the nation’s first black president.
But Saturday’s side-by-side events seemed to underline Biden’s recent stumbles.
His recent reversal on past decades of support for the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions, loomed over his participation at a Planned Parenthood candidate forum. And fresh comments about his relationships with segregationist senators offered opponents a new opportunity to dent his otherwise strong position among African American voters, who make up a majority of primary voters here for the first time in the nominating calendar next year.
Still, with the exception perhaps of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has excoriated the former vice president in recent days, Biden’s rivals only delivered glancing blows. And in the end it was Biden himself who only seemed to extend the segregationist controversy as the weekend came to a close, defending his past comments and insisting they have been taken out of context.
“To the extent that — that anybody thought that I meant something different, that is not what I intended,” he told Al Sharpton in an MSNBC interview on Saturday night.
For the first time in the nominating race, almost all of the 24 Democratic candidates appeared together Friday night at Rep. Jim Clyburn’s “World Famous” Fish Fry, locking arms together on stage and chatting casually with one another while confined in tight space offstage between their brief pitches.
If some candidates used their appearances at the fish fry and a pair of other events this weekend to target Biden, most chose to do so only implicitly as they made a positive case for themselves and their vision in way that contrasted with Biden.
At the South Carolina Democratic Party convention on Saturday, other leading Democrats tried to make a show of force of grassroots support amid a sea of campaign signs and young, diverse faces: Kamala Harris dancing along to her campaign’s marching band, Bernie Sanders arriving to a hero’s greeting and Beto O’Rourke opting to deliver his remarks to local Democratic delegates not from the podium, but the convention floor.
Cory Booker’s address Saturday night, just before Biden’s, was one of the few to silence the crowd who listened in rapt attention as he challenged Democrats to look beyond simply the need to defeat Trump.
“Beating Donald Trump is the floor, not the ceiling,” he said.
Booker had been one of the Democrats who had seized most strongly on Biden’s comments at a New York fundraiser on Tuesday at which he recalled the “civil” atmosphere in the Senate decades ago and his work with the segregationist Sens. James Eastland and Herman Talmadge. Booker’s initial criticism and call for Biden to apologize led Biden a day later to say it was Booker who needed to apologize.
But by the weekend Booker was downplaying the confrontation.
“There’s no hatchet. I have a lot of respect and gratitude for the vice president,” he told NBC. “I want folks to know that I got nothing to apologize for when it comes to speaking truth to power.”
De Blasio seemed more exasperated that Biden wouldn’t accept responsibility for his remarks, a common refrain from other candidates as well.
“It’s good for this party if he would just step forward and say: ‘Hey, I made a mistake. It was insensitive of me,'” de Blasio told NBC Friday. “I don’t know why he’s being stubborn here.”
“I don’t think it should be too hard to apologize,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told reporters. Because Trump has used “racist language” and “is demonizing the vulnerable,” she added, “We as Democrats need clarity that when we’re talking about something as important as race that we do it in a way that folks do not feel left behind by those comments and feel hurt by them.”
Voters and prominent Democrats here were more likely to give Biden the benefit of the doubt than raise the issue as a real liability for him. Biden has been visiting the state since he was elected to the Senate in 1972, and has maintained close connections with prominent Democrats here over the years.
“I think that what happened with Joe Biden was an unfortunate mistake,” said Dalhi Myers, vice chair of the Richland County Council and one of a small group of African American leaders who met privately with Biden for more than an hour Friday. “I’m going to focus on the substance. He has a record of over 30 years of substantive achievement. And I’m focused on the substance of everybody’s record.”
But even if the controversy hasn’t discouraged some from at least considering supporting Biden, it has had an impact.
Tracy Franklin, an undecided voter, raised the segregationist remarks on her own as one of several issues she said Biden needs to address.
“The fact that he can’t come out and apologize for the way he says things and, you know, when he knows that he’s kind of ticked a lot of people off,” she said. “Don’t be Trump.”
Columbia Mayor Stephen Benjamin, who also met with Biden during the weekend, said no candidate could take anything for granted here.
“Every candidate here is equal to every voter here in South Carolina,” he told NBC. “(They) all ought to be able to make a thoughtful defense, and certainly an explanation for past decisions, past policy positions.”
Clyburn said it was important for Democrats to remain unified and a real risk if candidates take the internal battle too far.
“You can make the nomination not worth having,” he told NBC as the weekend closed.
But he said that the candidates had handled the controversy well.
“Never criticize a person unless you have something to offer instead,” Clyburn said. “And so when you lay out any criticism and you tell people what you would do about it, that’s a good thing. That’s why I respect the way Sen. Booker has done this.”
Even if Biden maintains his strong position in South Carolina, other candidates — and Biden himself — understand that things can continue to change and perhaps quickly, particularly ahead of the first debates this weekend.
Standing alongside other candidates waiting to speak at the Fish Fry on Friday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee joked that there are “only 23 people who’ve really decided who they’re voting for so far — and those are the candidates.”