ORANGEBURG, S.C. (Reuters) – Democratic presidential hopefuls spread out across South Carolina on Thursday as the clock ticked down to the state’s Saturday primary election: their first big test with African-American voters.
Several candidates also headed to some of the Super Tuesday regions, the 14-state March 3 contest that offers the largest single-day haul of delegates in the Democratic Party’s White House nominating battle.
Here’s what’s happening Thursday:
A poll released on Thursday showed former Vice President Joe Biden with a healthy lead in South Carolina, underpinned by strong support from black voters.
Biden – who has pinned his hopes on winning the Southern state to keep his White House bid alive after poor showings in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada – has a healthy lead there, according to the Monmouth University Poll of likely Democratic voters in South Carolina.
Buoyed by strong support from African Americans, Biden was backed by 36% of likely voters, according to the survey. National front-runner U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont had 16% support, billionaire Tom Steyer 15%, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts 8%, former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg 6% and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota 4%.
Bolstering Biden’s lead was overwhelming support from black voters, who make up a majority of South Carolina’s Democratic voters. On Wednesday he received the coveted endorsement of congressman James Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House of Representatives and an influential black lawmaker. According to the Monmouth poll, Biden is supported by 45% of likely black voters, compared with 17% for Steyer and 13% for Sanders.
At a CNN town hall on Wednesday night, Biden made an emotional connection with a black pastor whose wife was killed in the 2015 Charleston church shooting, bringing up the loss of his own family members over the years.
Some African-American voters are still torn about Biden. Kayla Hodges, a 22-year-old senior at historically black Claflin University in Orangeburg, attended a Warren rally at another nearby historically black school, South Carolina State University, on Wednesday.
Hodges said she was still deciding whether to support Biden or Warren and argued that black voters like her want to know how a candidate would address inequality in all areas of life.
“He’s trying to continue (President Barack) Obama’s legacy – he’s been there,” she said. “But maybe it’s not Biden’s time anymore.”
Four candidates attacked Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak at a CNN town hall event on Wednesday in South Carolina, shortly after Trump held a news conference saying the risk from the virus was “very low” in the United States.
Trump put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the U.S. response to the looming global health crisis.
Biden lamented the Trump administration’s cuts in funding to the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.
“We’ve got good scientists, and I just want the president to get on the same page as the scientists,” Biden said.
Klobuchar, referring to Pence leading the coronavirus response effort, said: “Usually you might put a medical professional in charge.”
Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, when told about Pence’s appointment, and Trump’s assertion that his team was doing a “great job,” said sarcastically: “I feel so much better.”
IT’S SOUTH CAROLINA, BUT SUPER TUESDAY ON THEIR MINDS
Despite South Carolina being next, candidates are also focused on Super Tuesday. Buttigieg announced a major get-out-the-vote effort in Super Tuesday states, including a California digital ad program and more than 350 mobilization events to reach voters across the state.
Bloomberg, who skipped the first three nominating states and is not running in South Carolina, was scheduled to hold three events in the Super Tuesday states of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas on Thursday.
Sanders will sandwich an event in Virginia, another March 3 state, between events in South Carolina.
Warren will also be in Texas before returning to South Carolina on Friday.
Reporting by Joseph Ax and Tim Reid; editing by Jonathan Oatis