CHARLESTON, S.C. — Once, everyone seemed to think he was going to win. Now, Joe Biden can't afford to lose.
In truth, he's not alone — with Bernie Sanders on the march, neither Amy Klobuchar nor Elizabeth Warren can afford to leave South Carolina without a strong showing in Saturday's Democratic primary, the last before 1,357 delegates go up for grabs a week from today on Super Tuesday.
But in a state with a history of messing with convention, it's shaping up as a make-or-break week for Biden, the former vice-president who a year ago was conventional wisdom's top pick among a crowded field as the one with the best chance to defeat Republican President Donald Trump.
"All conventional wisdom seems to come to rest here, in one sense or another," said Charles Bierbauer, a former CNN reporter and dean emeritus of the College of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C.
It's a state where 60 per cent of Democratic voters are black, a constituency that has long favoured Biden. But it's also a state that likes to back a winner, which the ex-VP most decidedly was not after dismal showings in Iowa and New Hampshire before clawing his way back to a respectable second-place finish in Nevada.
"There is a considerable measure of pride in saying that South Carolina selects presidents," Bierbauer said. "South Carolinians do like to think that they are making these kinds of significant choices, that they are not just a blip in the process."
That was clear enough Monday on a college campus in palmetto-lined Charleston, where hundreds of people, many of them older white voters, lined up early to hear Biden's case for why they should support him.
"I personally feel that after all of the craziness of the last three years, it is essential that we as a country elect someone who has experience," said Anne McGrath, a Pennsylvania voter wintering in Charleston who ventured out with her husband John to hear Biden in person for the first time.
"To me, Washington experience is not a bad thing, and international relationships are very, very important — we live in a global market, and he has significant experience in that regard."
Biden indeed likes to talk about his experience as Barack Obama's right-hand man, and no wonder: it's a big part of the reason why he's so popular with black and Hispanic voters, said Gary Doer, who served as Canada's ambassador to the U.S. during the Obama administration.
"He has spent a lot of time shoulder-to-shoulder with Obama on a lot of issues that are very important to people in South Carolina, including Obamacare," as well as the results of the recovery effort after the 2008 economic crisis, Doer said. But his folksy, earnest charm — Biden is a flesh-presser of the first order who's far better working a crowd than he is speaking to one — also seems to resonate with black voters.
Anthony Breaker, of Summerville, S.C., has long been a Biden fan, but turned out Monday to see him in person for the first time.
"I think I like him because of his policies — I like what he's doing on climate change, I like what he's doing with health care. I just like him; he's a likable guy," Breaker said.
"I think he'd be a great president, but we need to get Mr. Trump out of office, by all means."
Monday's speech was vintage Biden. Mic in hand, he meandered around the stage, often turning his back to the television cameras as he spoke in disjointed sentence fragments punctuated with the occasional "Here's the deal," "I tell you what" or "No joke," driving home key points with a jab of a finger or a shake of the fist.
"Who in God's name needs 100 rounds in bullets, in a clip with a gun you have? Who in God's name needs that?" he said at one point, railing about the need for tougher gun laws.
"We protect geese — international geese — more than we do people. You can only have three shotgun shells, but you can have all you want in terms of guns. And ammunition. This is bizarre what we're doing."
Biden was crystal clear, however, in framing his single most important message: defeating Trump.
"We're in a battle for the soul of America," he said.
"This president has done more to destroy the essence of who we are as a nation than any president in history. This guy has pitted us against one another — this guy has made it sound as though everyone of colour, everyone who disagrees, everyone who's a Muslim — he's divided us based on race, religion and ethnicity."
Biden didn't mention any of his rivals by name — surprising, considering a new NBC News/Marist poll released Monday showed him in a statistical tie with Sanders, who appears to be steadily broadening his appeal with ethnic voters.
But it was clear many of those who turned out Monday at the College of Charleston are craving not only a Trump beater, but a consensus-builder as well.
Sanders, McGrath said, doesn't fit that description.
"A lot of his positions would be very difficult, especially in a split Congress if the Dems can't grab the Senate," she said.
"I would welcome someone who has experience working across the aisle, even though the aisle is very partisan these days. I don't see Sanders as having the constituency to compromise and work together, where I think somebody like Biden can."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2020
James McCarten, The Canadian Press