Biden faces competition for black vote in his SC 'firewall'

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Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

COLUMBIA, S.C.Joe Biden is facing increasingly formidable competition in South Carolina, a state his campaign has long assumed was safely in his column and one he's repeatedly described as a “firewall" in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and billionaire activist Tom Steyer are challenging the former vice president's standing in South Carolina. The Feb. 29 primary is the first contest in the South on the 2020 election calendar and serves as an important gauge of black support.

Sanders has generated enthusiasm from younger black voters in South Carolina. That could help him avoid a repeat of his dismal showing in the 2016 primary, when African Americans overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton.

Steyer, meanwhile, is flooding the South Carolina airwaves with millions of dollars in ads, building a robust staff and making numerous visits, including on Sunday and Monday, while Biden and others are in New Hampshire. The approach appears to have paid off: His support grew significantly in a Fox News poll last month, consistent with a steady momentum of endorsements that began in the final weeks of 2019.

Steyer is also seizing on Biden's fourth-place finish in last week's Iowa caucuses to undermine Biden's argument that he is best positioned to defeat President Donald Trump. That's important because many black voters in South Carolina have said they would back Biden because they view him as the most electable candidate in a crowded field.

"The presumptive front-runner who was leading in the national polls by 20 or something at one point, basically had a really bad night," Steyer told The Associated Press. “That means that his firewall in South Carolina doesn't exist. That means that really this race is going to come down to who can build a national, diverse coalition."

Biden was on top in a January Fox News survey of South Carolina voters and polling suggests his standing among black voters remains steady. He has compiled the most endorsements from black lawmakers and other officials, and he's tied with Sanders for the most supporters among the state's Legislative Black Caucus.

But with his Iowa disappointment and the middling results expected in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, Biden probably will need a commanding victory by the time the Democratic contest reaches South Carolina. Any shifts in voter sentiment could narrow a hoped-for win or, in a nightmare scenario, relegate him to second place, threatening the viability of his campaign.