COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – Joe Biden fought to rescue his presidential ambitions – and blunt Bernie Sanders’ momentum – on Saturday as voters across South Carolina made their mark on the Democrats’ nomination fight.
There were no reports of voting problems throughout the day. Polls across the state were to close at 7 p.m.
Biden, the former vice president, was looking to South Carolina’s large African American electorate for a win – and some badly needed momentum – heading into Super Tuesday’s much bigger test in three days. His standing in the broader race was unsettled at best after underwhelming finishes in the three contests before into Saturday’s primary.
Even a win might not be enough to establish Biden as the clear alternative to Sanders as the race quickly shifts to the high-stakes Super Tuesday elections. Standing in Biden’s way, besides Sanders, is Mike Bloomberg, the ultra-billionaire who has spent more than half a billion dollars courting voters in more than a dozen March states.
As the political world awaited South Carolina results, Bloomberg announced plans to deliver a three-minute prime-time address on Sunday night on two television networks. The campaign hasn’t said how much the New York businessman is paying for the air time, which is unprecedented in recent decades.
James Carville, a veteran Democratic strategist, said it was likely too late for either Biden or Bloomberg to emerge as their party’s nominee through traditional methods.
â€œOnly two things are going to happen: either Bernie or brokered,â€ Carville said.
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. â€œItâ€™s just hard for me to see beyond the two options,” he said.
Biden was confident on Saturday. Visiting a polling place in Greenville, he said:
“Itâ€™d be a good start to get into Super Tuesday and do really well,” Biden told reporters. “Look, Iâ€™m very optimistic. Iâ€™m optimistic not just about today; Iâ€™m optimistic about the whole process.â€
But Sanders was already peeking ahead to Super Tuesday, betting he can amass a major delegate lead when 14 states and one U.S. territory vote in just three days. After two consecutive victories and a tie for the lead in Iowa, the 78-year-old Vermont senator’s confidence is surging.
Sanders was spending 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 hosted a midday rally Saturday in downtown Boston, campaigning in the heart of liberal ally Elizabeth Warren’s political turf. Addressing a crowd of thousands on the Boston Common, Sanders said his success in the Democratic primary means â€œthe establishment is getting very nervousâ€ – but stopped short of predicting victory in South Carolina.
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 campaign’s 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.
â€œIâ€™m confident weâ€™re 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 â€œBiden is expected to win.â€
â€œFor the vice president, he needs an extraordinarily large win in South Carolina in order to convince folks heâ€™s going to be able to go the distance,â€ he said.
Trump was monitoring the Democratic contest as well.
At a rally in North Charleston on Friday, the Republican president asked the crowd whether Biden or Sanders would be the better Democratic opponent for him.
“I think Bernie’s 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 Saturday’s Democratic primary and vote for Sanders.
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. At his state campaign headquarters on Saturday, Steyer said he felt optimistic going into the vote and was looking ahead to trips to Alabama and Texas, two Super Tuesday states.
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.
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 Biden’s last, best chance to shine.
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.
Senior Biden adviser Symone Sanders shifted away from calling South Carolina Bidenâ€™s â€œfirewallâ€ and instead called it a â€œspringboard,â€ on par with how the state boosted the presidential aspirations of Barack Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016.
That sentiment was echoed Saturday by former senior Obama adviser David Axelrod, who said a big Biden win in South Carolina could give him a Super Tuesday boost that might force several candidates to quickly consider whether to proceed, including Bloomberg.
â€œIf Biden wins by a big margin, it will translate into a bigger day for him on Tuesday,” Axelrod said. â€œAnd if he beats Bloomberg by a significant margin on Tuesday, Bloomberg is going to have to consider what heâ€™s doing here.â€
Indeed, South Carolina represents much more than the fourth state on the Democrats’ months-long primary calendar.
It serves as the first major test of the candidates’ strength with African American voters, who will be critical both in the general election and the rest of the primary season.
Roughly three in 10 people of voting age in South Carolina are black, according to census data.
In the short term, Super Tuesday features a handful of Southern states, like Alabama, Arkansas and North Carolina, where the African American vote will be decisive. And longer term, the ultimate Democratic nominee will struggle to defeat Trump unless he or she generates more enthusiasm among black voters than Clinton did four years ago.
While voting technology was a concern in two of the last three primary contests, South Carolina uses a wide array of voting technology that presents unique challenges.
Saturday’s election in South Carolina marks the first statewide test of its new fleet of electronic voting machines, a $50 million upgrade from an old and vulnerable system that lacked any paper record of individual votes. The new machines produce a paper record that can be verified by the voter and checked after the election to detect any malfunction or manipulation.
Peoples reported from New York. Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Washington and Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Thomas Beaumont in Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina, contributed to this report.