The Democrats 2020 nominating fight turned to South Carolina on Saturday for the first-in-the-South primary, with Joe Biden confident that his popularity with black voters will seal him a victory and help blunt some of front-runner Bernie Sanders momentum.
There were no early reports of voting problems after polls opened across the state at 7 a.m.
The primary stands as the first marker on a critical four-day stretch that will help determine whether the party rallies behind Sanders or embraces a longer and uglier slog that could carry on until the national convention.
“Only two things are going to happen: either Bernie or brokered,” said James Carville, a veteran Democratic strategist.
Carville is uncomfortable with a Sanders nomination but fears that a brokered convention — in which party bosses or delegates in floor fights and negotiations decide the nominee after no candidate amasses enough delegates in the primary — would inflict serious damage on the party, as well. “Its just hard for me to see beyond the two options,” he said.
In Saturdays primary, Biden and his establishment allies hope to slow Sanders rise — and change the trajectory of the race — with a convincing victory demonstrating his strength among African Americans. Visiting a polling place in Greenville early Saturday, Biden said he felt good about his prospects.
“Itd be a good start to get into Super Tuesday and do really well,” Biden told reporters. “Look, Im very optimistic. Im optimistic not just about today; Im optimistic about the whole process.”
'Expectations can be broken'
But just three days after South Carolina, Sanders believes hes positioned to seize a major delegate advantage when 14 states and one U.S. territory vote on “Super Tuesday.”
After two consecutive victories and a tie for the lead in Iowa, the 78-year-old Vermont senators confidence is surging.
Sanders will spend the lead-up to Super Tuesday campaigning in the home states of two major Democratic rivals, betting he can score a double knockout blow — or at least limit the size of their victories.
In a power play, Sanders will host a midday rally Saturday in downtown Boston, campaigning in the heart of progressive ally Elizabeth Warrens political turf. And on the eve of Super Tuesday, Sanders will host a concert in Minnesota, where home-state Sen. Amy Klobuchar is looking for her first win.
Senior adviser Jeff Weaver said Sanders is aggressively hunting for delegates, noting that their campaigns experience during the 2016 primary against Hillary Clinton taught them that any candidate who finishes Super Tuesday with a significant delegate advantage will be difficult to catch.
“Im confident were going to do very, very well across the country,” Weaver said of the coming four days. He also sought to downplay the importance of South Carolina, where “Biden is expected to win.”
“Expectations can be broken,” Weaver added. ”But for the vice president, he needs an extraordinarily large win in South Carolina in order to convince folks hes going to be able to go the distance.”
At a rally in North Charleston on Friday, Trump asked the crowd whether Biden or Sanders would be the better Democratic opponent for him.
“I think Bernies easier to beat,” Trump said.
The audience seemed to agree, cheering the mention of Sanders and booing the mention of Biden. Some state GOP leaders have even urged Republican voters to participate in Saturdays Democratic primary and vote for Sanders.
Far from a two-person race
Yet the Democrats 2020 primary election is far from a two-person race.
In South Carolina, billionaire activist Tom Steyer has spent more than $19 million on television advertising — more than all the other candidates combined — in his quest for his first top finish in four contests. Not ceding anything, Pete Buttigieg is fighting to prove he can build a multiracial coalition. And with the help of super PACs, Warren and Klobuchar have vowed to keep pushing forward no matter how they finish on Saturday.
New York billionaire Mike Bloomberg is not competing in South Carolina, yet he has shattered spending records after investing hundreds of millions of dollars in Super Tuesday advertising backed by a horde of paid staff in virtually every state in the nation. He could emerge as the strongest Sanders alternative in the coming days, or he could unintentionally help Sanders by splitting up the anti-Sanders vote.
Still, Saturday marks Bidens last, best chance to shine.
The former vice presidents campaign began the week cautiously optimistic, even as he predicted victory and began lashing out at Sanders more aggressively.
“This nation isnt looking for a revolution like some folks are talking about,” Biden said Friday in Sumter, slapping at Sanders signature call to action. “Theyre looking for progress. Theyre looking for results.”
After a solid debate performance on Tuesday, the 77-year-old Democrat was more buoyant on the campaign trail and his aides grew more confident backed by new support from elected officials.
Biden has racked up far more endorsements than his rivals have throughout the year, and he added another big name from a Super Tuesday state, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, on Friday. That came two days after he earned the endorsement of South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn.
Summing up the mood, senior Biden adviser Symone Sanders shifted away from calling South Carolina Bidens “firewall” and instead called it a “springboard,” on par with how the state boosted the presidential aspirations of Barack Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016.
Indeed, South Carolina represents much more than the fourth state on the Democrats monthslong primary calendar.
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