- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 27, 2019

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Joseph R. Biden’s political fate in South Carolina ultimately could be decided by voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the former vice president’s shaky performance on the campaign trail will be put to the test first, setting the tone for the ensuing contests.

The South Carolina primary has long been viewed as Mr. Biden’s firewall in the 2020 Democratic presidential race.

Even as he loses ground in Iowa and New Hampshire, he has maintained a double-digit lead over his rivals in South Carolina, where his ties to former President Barack Obama have buoyed his support in a state in which over 60% of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016 was black.

Voters, though, say second-guessing of Mr. Biden’s candidacy will begin in earnest if he struggles in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3 and the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire on Feb. 11. Those two contests, with a mostly white electorate, will cull the field ahead of voting in Nevada and South Carolina.

“If he doesn’t poll real strong numbers, I think he is going to be a lot more vulnerable when it comes to South Carolina,” said Democratic voter Jeanette Brown, who has been giving Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California a good look.

Mr. Obama, then a first-term senator, faced a similar test in 2008 when his campaign concluded early on that he needed to win in Iowa or New Hampshire to prove to black voters in South Carolina and elsewhere that he was a legitimate contender against Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Obama ended up exceeding expectations.

He rolled to victory over Mrs. Clinton in Iowa, easing concerns of black voters who were skeptical that white voters would support a black candidate.

“It was so shocking for Obama — it’s white, and he won. A black guy won Iowa, so everybody took a look,” said South Carolina state Rep. Terry Alexander, who is backing Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont. “There was a sense that this could really happen.”

Before the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Obama trailed Mrs. Clinton in 31 out of 39 South Carolina polls. After his Iowa victory, he was the top choice of voters in all 19 polls in the state and won handily.

South Carolina has remained a bright spot for Mr. Biden in the 2020 race for the Democratic nomination.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, has a 6-point lead in Iowa and a 3-point lead in New Hampshire, according to the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls. Mr. Biden trails in fourth place in both of those states.

But in South Carolina, Mr. Biden holds a nearly 20-point lead. The latest poll, conducted by Quinnipiac University, showed Mr. Biden leading with 33% of the vote. The next closest candidate was Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts with 17%.

Mr. Biden’s lead was padded by 44% of the support from black voters, with 40% of black voters saying he had the best chance to defeat President Trump.

Mr. Sanders was the only other candidate to score at least 10% support from black voters.

The good news for Mr. Biden’s hopes in South Carolina is that the two black candidates in the field — Ms. Harris and Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey — have struggled across the map. Meanwhile, the candidates who have been gaining the most ground nationwide — Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren — have polled poorly with black voters.

Mr. Biden also benefits from voters’ familiarity.

Minutes before Ms. Harris held a campaign event at Benedict College, Lorraine Holmes, a cafeteria worker at the school, said Mr. Biden was the only candidate she knew of in the sprawling field.

“He was Barack’s vice president,” said Ms. Holmes, 49. “I like Joe. I think he is a straight-up person.”

Mr. Biden has faced intense scrutiny over the sluggish nature of his bid and his uneven debate performances.

David Axelrod, a former senior Obama adviser, panned Mr. Biden’s most recent performance. He said the candidate is “kind of Mr. Magooing his way through this. … You keep worrying he’s going to hit a wall, but he’s moving forward.”

Still, Kenneth Glover, chairman of the Orangeburg County Democratic Party, said the verbal miscues and uneven performances can actually work to Mr. Biden’s advantage.

“I think all that does is enhance his likability,” Mr. Glover said. “He just seems like a regular person. It doesn’t always come out the way we want. It just makes him seem human instead of rehearsed.”

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