CHARLESTON — Something was amiss from the beginning. The candidate was nowhere to be seen and a restlessness overcame the gymnasium as a band broke into Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’ ” without a hint of irony.
Aides checked and rechecked the teleprompter, standing on tip toes to reach the candidate’s eye level. When a senior staffer jumped on stage to finally introduce the candidate a half hour late, she clutched two microphones in case one broke.
Half the crowd at a Monday rally at Charleston University could barely muster an applause. “I don’t think you’re all with me,” she said, and tried to whip them up one more time.
Finally, the candidate appeared: blue suit, white shirt, no tie and unfazed by the technical difficulties all around him. He was fired up — “Almost in your face,” supporter Amanda Henley later said — and he demanded they be too.
The Amazon is burning. Black kids are dying in the streets. Students are drowning in debt.
“It’s time to stand up," he barked with urgency.
As the crowd left, some wondered out loud: Where has this Joe Biden been?
Joe Biden often says, “We’re in a battle for the soul of America." Right now, Biden is fighting to stay in the battle.
The former vice president enters the South Carolina primary trailing in delegates needed to win nomination. He’s also lagging far behind in momentum. Bernie Sanders leads the Democratic race in both and the Vermont senator is threatening to deal Biden’s campaign another blow when the Palmetto State votes this Saturday.
The South Carolina primary results will be closely watched in Florida, where Biden has been a favorite among the Democratic establishment since he announced his campaign for president last April. It’s the first test of the candidates’ support among the black voters who are the bedrock of the the Democratic Party in many states, including Florida.
“Iowa and New Hampshire don’t reflect the demographics in our country and the growing number of minority voters,” said Ana Cruz, a Tampa political consultant who has raised money for Biden. “South Carolina is going to give us a really big peek into how motivated our base voters are and who they break for.”
As President Barack Obama’s right-hand-man, Biden remains well-liked in black communities, but Sanders has also shored up his support among African American voters since his 2016 presidential campaign. Meanwhile, billionaire businessman Tom Steyer has flooded the South Carolina airwaves to court minority voters.
Two polls released Wednesday showed Biden with a healthy advantage over Sanders and Steyer. A Clemson University survey says he’s up 15 over Steyer with Sanders in third; University of South Carolina projects an 8-percentage point advantage over the field.
Biden has all but guaranteed victory here. His campaign expects "with a win in South Carolina, a great debate performance, that momentum will carry him into the month of March” through Super Tuesday and Florida’s March 17 primary, Biden spokeswoman Symone Sanders said.
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But with so much emphasis on South Carolina, it’s unclear if Biden’s campaign could survive a disappointing finish. Florida was once thought a state that could separate Biden from the pack on his way to the nomination. In Tuesday’s debate, moderator Gayle King vocalized what many Biden supporters in Florida now fear: that a loss in South Carolina will end his campaign before the Sunshine State votes.
Biden wouldn’t entertain the thought of dropping out. “I will win South Carolina," he said.
Midway through Tuesday night’s debate in Charleston, Biden lit into Steyer as a “Tommy-come-lately” who hasn’t shown up for the black community until he decided to run for president.
At a debate watch party in Orangeburg, a South Carolina city with the one of the state’s highest percentage of black voters, a Biden supporter watched the exchange with delight. “That’s the Biden I’ve been waiting for," he exclaimed.
Sanders had the clear target on his back, but Biden had plenty to prove Tuesday night and his supporters believe he delivered. His debate performance spurred Biden’s best fundraising night since he entered the race, his spokeswoman, Symone Sanders said.
Steve Schale, a longtime Democratic consultant in Florida and strategist for Biden’s Super PAC, said the former vice president hasn’t relished the intraparty fight that has been on display since the first debates featuring 20 candidates.
“Most of the people he’s running against are people he has campaigned for in his life,” Schale said. “Other parts of the coalition view the war inside our family as more important than the war against Trump.”
If Biden has appeared more forceful in South Carolina, it’s a reflection of how the race has amplified as they get deeper in the calendar, Sanders said. There are 15 states voting in the next six days, and the urgency is real. But there is also opportunity. Beyond South Carolina are more states favorable to Biden, his campaign believes, and two giant delegate hauls in California and Texas.
The question is, unless moderate Democrats drop out of the race, can Biden grow the primary voters who are hearing his message, in the same way Sanders did in Nevada?
Take Monday’s rally at Charleston University. Biden delivered a speech intended for a college audience. He urged young people to show up in numbers that could turn the election.
“You could own this election,” Biden said. "It’s yours. So get up and let’s take back this country.”
Except, there were few students in the crowd, aside from the school’s marching band. The seats were full of middle-aged men and women.
George and Jerri Wilkes, in their 46th year of marriage, left the rally more hopeful for Biden than they had been since the Iowa caucus results came in, with Biden in fourth. Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight.com gives Biden a one-in-nine chance now in winning the nomination.
“I’ve watched some of his other rallies on TV and I thought tonight he seemed to be energized,” George Wilkes said, adding that he hopes other moderates get out of the way for Biden. But will they? And will there be enough time for their candidate to stop Sanders?
“That’s my fear," Wilkes said. "I don’t know.”