SUMTER, South Carolina (BLOOMBERG) - Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden apologised on Saturday (July 6) for leaving the impression he was praising two segregationist lawmakers when he discussed civility in Congress, a comment that's drawn sharp criticism from his opponents.
"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?" the former vice-president told supporters in Sumter, South Carolina.
"Yes I was, I regret it. I'm sorry for the pain and misconception I may have caused anybody.
"But should that misstep define 50 years of my record for fighting for civil rights, racial justice in this country? I hope not, I don't think so. That just isn't an honest assessment of my record."
Biden's apology came during a speech aimed at defending himself from criticism by other Democratic presidential candidates, who have begun digging into his decades-long history in public life, especially on racial issues.
In mid-June, Biden recalled his ability to work cooperatively as senator from Delaware with the two prominent advocates of segregation.
Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, Biden said with a heavy Southern drawl, "never called me boy, he always called me son."
Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia, he added, was "one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys" but "at least there was some civility."
Biden's speech on Saturday took on critics who've begun digging into his decades-long history in public life with a defense of his record and his character - including that Barack Obama chose him as a running mate.
"America in 2019 is a very different place than the America of the 1970s. And that's a good thing," Biden said, according to excerpts provided earlier by his campaign.
"I've witnessed an incredible amount of change in this nation and I've worked to make that change happen. And yes - I've changed also."
Biden, 76, also leant on his ties to Obama. Biden was vetted and selected by Obama in 2008 and "I will take his judgment of my record, my character, and my ability to handle the job over anyone else's," Biden said.
The speech comes after weeks of scrutiny of Biden's record on race from his earliest years in the US Senate. As well as the segregationist senators reminiscence, Biden faced a debate-stage attack from California Senator Kamala Harris over his opposition to federally mandated busing to desegregate schools in the 1970s.
Since officially entering the race in April, Biden's support has sagged in some opinion polls, thwarting an effort to breeze through the primary season and focus on a general election campaign against President Donald Trump.
A RealClearPolitics compilation of recent national polls still shows Biden leading by about 10 percentage points over his nearest rivals, but his advantage has deteriorated steadily for the past two months.
The candidate also touched on a clear area of frustration for him and his campaign - that he's being attacked on issues of race and civil rights despite spending eight years alongside Obama, the first black US president.
"If you look at the issues I've been attacked on, nearly every one of them is for something well before 2008," Biden said.
"It's as if my opponents want you to believe I served from 1972 until 2008 - and then took the next eight years off. They don't want to talk much about my time as vice president."
Ian Sams, Harris' national press secretary, responded on Twitter to the early excerpts from Biden's speech, writing that, "Every candidate's record will (and should) be scrutinised in this race. It's a competition to become President of the United States. There are no free passes."