It’s not just because Iowa was Joe Biden’s Waterloo in 2008, the last time he ran for president. Or because Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will have New Hampshire pretty well carved up this time around.
Or because the vice president long ago won the affections of two divergent pillars of South Carolina politics, delivering the eulogy for the state's longtime Republican Senator Strom Thurmond, and bonding with his former Democratic colleague, Senator Fritz Hollings. Or because the Bidens love to vacation on Kiawah Island, where they just spent a week with family, recovering from the loss of the vice president's son, Beau, who died in May of brain cancer, but not before reportedly encouraging his father to take another shot at the White House.
It’s not any of these factors alone – but all of them, and more – that explain why South Carolina is at the heart of Vice President Joe Biden’s early-state strategy should he mount a late bid against Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, a decision that appears increasingly likely. On Saturday, Charleston’s newspaper, the Post and Courier, ran an editorial encouraging Biden to run.
It was just another sign of Biden's special ties to the state, where the third contest in the 2016 presidential eliminations will take place next year, and where Biden and his wife Jill retreated last week to consider his path. Over the course of the couple's Kiawah vacation many of the players in his South Carolina campaign-in-waiting reached out in person, through calls or with messages to him through aides, pledging their support if he decides to get in.
“We talked many times about him running in 2016, before Beau fell ill again, and during, and after his passing,” said state Representative James Smith, who said he has been in ongoing contact with Biden and aides. “This was a very important week for he and Jill as they’re working through this personal decision.
“As soon as he announces he’ll immediately have the most formidable organization in the state,” he said, predicting Biden will run though making clear Biden has not told him anything definitive. “We will have a longstanding organization ready when he gives the go, when he and Jill say they’re ready.”
Dick Harpootlian, the former state Democratic Party chairman with key ties to money and organization, is one of Biden’s biggest champions. But Smith personifies another of Biden's strengths in the state: The 47-year-old lawmaker met Biden in 2006 and, as a guardsman who was Beau’s age, bonded with the vice president personally as well as politically. South Carolina is a big military state with voters who also have family ties to the troops, like the vice president, whose late son was an Iraq veteran and who over the weekend choked back tears eulogizing other dead soldiers.
Biden “has the ability to bring people together” in a way Clinton does not, Smith said. “It’s pretty self-evident that she’s a pretty polarizing figure, and I don’t think that’s what we need to lead our nation as a whole. But I’m more for the vice president than I am against Hillary.”
Biden, who went in June with President Barack Obama to mourn the racially-motivated killings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and stayed on to commune with parishioners on his own, also has amassed a list of state lawmakers and black pastors who've supported him before and are holding off on a commitment to Clinton until they know what he’s going to do.
Some of them say there are enough black Democrats in the state who are still turned off by the Clintons’ approach toward Obama in the 2008 primary to make a Biden candidacy welcome in the Palmetto State.
Reverend Joe Darby, presiding elder of the Beaufort District of the AME Church, said church policy prevents him from formally endorsing a candidate at this stage. Still, he said, he has been encouraging Biden to run. “I think he’d be an excellent candidate,” Darby said. “He made a lot of friends last time around in South Carolina. He’s stayed in touch with people. He’s maintained a lot of contacts and done so with an abiding level of genuineness.”
Darby last saw Biden the day after service for Clementa Pinckney, among those in the church slaying. Darby said Biden also called him on Aug. 7, not to talk about presidential politics, just to wish him a happy birthday. It was “family, check-in, kind of stuff,” Darby said.
Asked what he thinks of how Clinton is viewed by black South Carolina voters, Darby said there are still some lingering questions from 2008. “I think we’ll get a clearer picture of Hillary Clinton and how she relates if she has to compete against the vice president in South Carolina," he said. "Last time around in South Carolina there were some people who were not pleased with her performance. The best way to do that is not in a heavily scripted way but a way that stacks her up against another viable candidate.”
State Rep. Jerry Gowan, who first met Biden around 1980 when he interned for Hollings, and who co-chaired Biden’s South Carolina campaign in 2008, said for all of the buzz about a Biden run, the vice president has not spoken with him personally about his intentions and that until that happens Gowan assumes nothing. “I want to hear it from Joe himself.”
“I don’t think this is a simple political decision for him,” he said. “Joe loves America, loves what he does, cares deeply for this country, and I think he brings a lot to the table,” he said. “But I also know Joe has a great deal of admiration and respect for the Clintons. Until you hear it from him, consider what he’s gone through. Joe just buried his child.”
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