Biden banking on campaign-reviving win as South Carolina votes

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden drew applause when he answered an undecided voter’s question about what he’s passionate about.

South Carolina is voting in a primary that could revive former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign and shake up a Democratic presidential race that’s been dominated by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders before the delegate-heavy nationwide contests on Super Tuesday.

Biden has long seen the Palmetto State as a launching pad that would demonstrate his strength among African American voters, a constituency crucial to his party’s hopes of victory in November. But his disappointing showings in the first three clashes — in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — have turned the state into a last stand for a half-century-long political career. Most signs point to a Biden win on Saturday night and a moment of long-delayed vindication for a man who was seen as a strong national front-runner for months — until voters started weighing in.

The fourth contest in the party’s process to choose a candidate to take on President Donald Trump is unfolding in a charged atmosphere with anxiety growing over the coronavirus outbreak following the first death on US soil Saturday. Democratic candidates have lambasted the President for his handling of the threat, while Trump has branded their complaints as the latest “hoax” designed to damage him.

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The question will be whether a big South Carolina win will translate into a meaningful bounce in the Super Tuesday contests next week. A strong showing by Biden in those contests could turn the race into a two-man duel and slow Sanders, who leads handily in delegate-rich states like Texas and California. An unexpected loss would likely doom the former vice president’s third presidential campaign.

Polls in South Carolina opened at 7 a.m. ET, and will remain in operation until 7 p.m. ET.

RELATED: How to watch the South Carolina primary

Biden told reporters Saturday morning he was in good shape in South Carolina, striking a balance between underlining the importance of the race and controlling expectations.

“I’m very optimistic, I’m optimistic not just about today, I’m optimistic about the whole process from here on out,” the former vice president said.

“All I know is I think I’m going to do well here, and I think that’s going to put me in a position to do well in North Carolina and Alabama, and other states in the Democratic primary,” Biden said. “I think I can do well in but I don’t think it will even be over after Super Tuesday.”

Biden pulls on longtime network

Biden has cultivated ties to South Carolina Democrats for decades, and benefited from a late endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn, a giant of the state’s politics. He’s also trading heavily on his association with President Barack Obama. And Biden put in his best debate performance of the campaign so far last week, a performance he hopes has campaign gathering momentum at the right moment.

If Biden wins big, he could preview a strong performance on Super Tuesday in southern states like Alabama and North Carolina where black voters are key and emerge as the main threat to Sanders.

South Carolina awards 54 pledged delegates, more than half the 101 pledged delegates already awarded in the three previous contests. The symbolism of the race is even more important. In 2008, Barack Obama’s thumping win over Hillary Clinton proved that African American voters would embrace his historic candidacy, cementing the coalition that made him president.

The state reliably votes Republican in presidential elections. But it has growing Democratic strongholds around Charleston on the coast and the African American community is concentrated mostly around the university town of Columbia — a two-hour drive to the northwest.

Sanders held his last South Carolina rally on Friday, and he’s not staying in the state for the results.

The Vermont senator lashed out at Trump, in an apparent attempt to preview how he’d handle a general election clash with the President. And as he now often does, he cited a heap of polls showing him matching him up well with the man in the Oval Office.

“If we keep our eyes on the prize, which is an agenda that works for working families. If we stand together, if we’re prepared to stand up and fight, if we’re prepared to bring people into the political process, all the money in the world is not going to be able to stop us,” Sanders said.

If Sanders can limit the size of Biden’s expected victory, he could blunt any surge the former Delaware senator can take out of the contest in the short window before Super Tuesday.

The front-runner was campaigning Saturday in Massachusetts and Virginia, already looking to states that vote in the coming week’s contests in 15 states and territories on Super Tuesday.

One candidate who could be a factor in South Carolina more than elsewhere is Tom Steyer, the businessman and philanthropist who has camped out in the state for months and has spent more than $20 million of his fortune in advertising campaigns.

“I’ve been down here more than any other candidate to meet people, to look them in the eye,” Steyer told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” on Thursday.

“In terms of clean air and clean water, in terms of wages, in terms of health care, in terms of education — honestly I have never been to a place where people need more help, where there is more need for turning the page on this failed Republican experiment starting with Ronald Reagan.” Steyer said.

Saturday is the last Democratic contest before former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has already splashed half a billion dollars of his own cash on the race, faces voters for the first time. The former New York mayor Bloomberg could syphon significant numbers of moderates away from Biden and therefore benefit Sanders, whose self-described democratic socialism has many party elders fearing he’d be easy prey for Trump.

Trump stirs up trouble

Trump, as is now his habit, flew to South Carolina on Friday night to goad the candidates and to underline his dominance in the state.

He urged his supporters to vote for Sanders in the state’s open primary in a bid to create as much chaos in the Democratic race as possible, and his campaign team sees Sanders as their preferred opponent in November.

During the rally, Trump accused Democrats of seizing on coronavirus as their latest “hoax” to damage him, even as examples of community transmission start to be discovered in the United States. A picture of the President, alongside the state’s two Republican extra space senators, covered most of the front page of the “The State” newspaper Saturday, overshadowing the Democratic race.

Prospects for Democratic candidates other than Biden, Sanders and Steyer don’t look promising and a weak showing could leave candidates short of the 15% statewide threshold needed to win delegates.

Candidates like former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar will increasingly face questions about their rationale for staying in the race if they cannot show support among African American voters. Sanders has made some inroads in the community and has also improved his standing with other diverse sectors of the Democratic electorate since his 2016 campaign — a factor that could propel him to victories in California and Texas on Tuesday.

This is a breaking story and will be updated.