Former US vice-president Biden wins South Carolina primary, reviving his flagging candidacy

Democratic US presidential candidate Joe Biden takes photos with audience members at the end of a campaign event at Saint Augustine's University in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Feb 29, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

COLUMBIA (AFP, NYTIMES) - Former United States vice-president Joe Biden won the South Carolina primary on Saturday (Feb 29), reviving his flagging campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

All of the major television networks projected the 77-year-old Mr Biden as the winner just minutes after polls closed in South Carolina at 7pm (8am on Sunday, Singapore time).

The networks did not provide any vote totals but the early projections were an indication that Mr Biden had scored a decisive win in the state where he was counting on heavy support among African-American voters.

A South Carolina victory was seen as crucial to Mr Biden's hopes of challenging Mr Bernie Sanders, the 78-year-old senator from Vermont, for the Democratic nomination and the spot on the ticket in November against Republican Donald Trump.

Mr Sanders has been the clear front runner in the race, having won both New Hampshire and Nevada after finishing in a virtual tie in Iowa with former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Mr Biden finished fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and second in Nevada and he desperately needed a win in South Carolina ahead of next week's "Super Tuesday", when 14 states go to the polls.

One-third of the delegates who formally choose the Democratic nominee at the July party convention will be up for grabs on Super Tuesday.

A decisive victory

Mr Biden's decisive victory revived his listing campaign, establishing himself as the leading candidate to slow Mr Sanders as the turbulent Democratic race turns to a slew of coast-to-coast contests on Tuesday.

Propelled by an outpouring of support from South Carolina's African American voters, Mr Biden easily overcame a late effort by Mr Sanders to upset him in a state he has long seen as his firewall.

As much as the results here offered new life to Mr Biden, the one-time front runner before he faltered in the fall, they dealt a perhaps fatal blow to two moderates. Mr Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar, who had been hoping to overtake Mr Biden as the candidates of the party's centre, again proved unable to win non-white voters.

Perhaps even more consequentially, Mr Biden's triumph here also increased pressure on Mr Michael Bloomberg to best Mr Biden in the 15 states and territories voting on Tuesday - or consider exiting the race.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a progressive rival to Mr Sanders, also showed no strong appeal to African American voters in the Republican-leaning state. But unlike the moderate candidates, Ms Warren was unlikely to face similar pressure to make way for Mr Biden, and some party leaders hope she will stay in the race and complicate Mr Sanders' efforts to unify the left.

A moment to savour

For Mr Biden, though, Saturday night brought a moment to savour.

Low on cash and without a victory in the first three contests, Mr Biden desperately needed South Carolina, a state for which he has long had a personal affection, to resurrect his third and perhaps final quest for the presidency.

Facing a humiliating fifth-place finish in New Hampshire in February, Mr Biden flew out of the New England cold before the polls had even closed there and effectively staked his campaign on South Carolina, telling supporters in Columbia that evening that he was counting on the state's more racially diverse set of voters to offset his dismal showing in the first two states, both heavily white.

Then, after finishing a distant second to Sanders in Nevada, he came directly to South Carolina. He campaigned almost exclusively here while other Democrats fanned out across the much larger map of states that vote on Tuesday.

In the debate this past week, Mr Biden promised to win South Carolina and projected confidence that he would prevail with African Americans. He did both, claiming black voters with 60 per cent, far better than Mr Sanders' 17 per cent.

"Today is a great day because, I tell you what, the full comeback starts in South Carolina," Mr Biden, anticipating victory, said at a campaign rally in North Carolina earlier in the day. "We're going to win South Carolina. And the next step is North Carolina."

The results here represented at least an interruption of what had loomed as a march to the nomination by Mr Sanders. South Carolina was the first state where Mr Sanders did not finish at the top, and his distant second to Mr Biden came after he had made a late effort to score a win.

Mr Biden has led in every poll of South Carolina, but after his Nevada landslide, Mr Sanders decided to try to deliver a finishing blow against Mr Biden. Mr Sanders increased his television advertising in the state and intensified his campaign schedule with the goal of denying Mr Biden the chance to reignite his candidacy and perhaps wrapping up the nomination fight by the middle of March.

A close bond

Mr Biden was also aided immensely by his close bond with Representative James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in the US Congress and most influential Democrat in South Carolina.

After months of remaining neutral, Mr Clyburn offered Mr Biden a full-throated endorsement last Wednesday before a bank of television cameras and photographers at a news conference outside Charleston.

On Saturday, nearly half of South Carolina voters said Mr Clyburn's support was an important factor in their decision, according to exit polls.

Even more crucial to Mr Biden was his service as vice-president under the nation's first black president, a relationship that earned him a reservoir of goodwill in a state where about 56 per cent of the Democratic electorate on Saturday was African American, according to exit polls.

"He was Obama's vice-president, and he stuck by him," said Mr Luther Johnson, a Columbia resident who came to see Mr Biden at a black-owned barber shop last Friday.

In keeping with tradition

Mr Biden's back-against-the-wall victory was in keeping with South Carolina's tradition of turning around presidential campaigns. Mr George W. Bush in 2000, Mr Barack Obama in 2008 and Mrs Hillary Clinton in 2016 all revived their candidacies in the state after losing decisively in New Hampshire.

But Mr Biden's victory on Saturday is no guarantee he will be catapulted to the nomination in the same fashion. Mr Sanders is poised to rack up hundreds of delegates on Super Tuesday, including in large states like California, and Mr Bloomberg as well as Ms Warren are also in contention to claim delegates.

Mr Buttigieg is also hoping to be competitive, but on a conference call on Saturday, his campaign aides declined to say how many delegates he would need to win to remain viable.

In a sign that Mr Bloomberg had no intention of yielding to a potential Biden comeback, his campaign announced on Saturday that it had purchased a lengthy block of airtime on multiple national networks for a three-minute commercial on Sunday, styled as an address by Mr Bloomberg to the American people about the looming threat of the coronavirus.

The ad showed Mr Bloomberg speaking directly into the camera against a backdrop resembling the Oval Office, presenting himself as a strong leader for a time of crisis.

Signalling that he is looking ahead on the primary calendar, Mr Bloomberg has announced plans to spend the night of Super Tuesday in Florida, the huge March 17 primary state where Mr Sanders is seen as vulnerable and television advertising often decides elections.

But the impact of Mr Bloomberg's paid advertising could be sorely tested across the primary map on Super Tuesday if Mr Biden's victory in South Carolina leads to several days of wall-to-wall media coverage treating him as a resurrected political powerhouse.

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