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In South Carolina, Biden finds shelter from the storm

Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, greets House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn at the “World Famous Fish Fry” on Friday, June 21, 2019, in Columbia, S.C. | AP Photo/Meg Kinnard

2020 elections

Rep. Jim Clyburn’s fish fry event served as a reminder of how difficult it is for Joe Biden’s rivals to mount a sustained attack against him.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — For nearly 90 minutes on a sweat-soaked stage in South Carolina on Friday night, it was almost as if Joe Biden had put the uproar surrounding his comments about segregationists behind him.

Speaking at a gathering of 21 presidential candidates here, the former vice president did not mention the controversy from the platform. Nor did his rivals confront him about it directly at Rep. Jim Clyburn’s annual fish fry event, a reflection of their reticence to criticize Biden in front of a crowd that adored him.

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Even Sen. Cory Booker — the New Jersey senator who had been forcefully calling for Biden to apologize this week — delivered a conciliatory message on stage.

“We all must make sure that we may be in the midst of a primary,” Booker said, “but when the primary’s over, we become a united force.”

The evening served as a reminder of how difficult it remains for any of Biden’s rivals to mount a sustained attack against him.

In South Carolina, voters “either don’t know about [the controversy surrounding segregationists], or it doesn’t bother them,” said Antjuan Seawright, the ubiquitous local Democratic strategist who was set to host an after-party at a nearby steakhouse.

“People in the bubble are most disturbed by that,” he said. “When you talk to everyday people, it really doesn’t bother them. And that’s the difference between running a real grassroots-focused campaign, versus an in-the-weeds, in-the-bubble, Washington, D.C.-focused campaign.”

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Members of the Democratic presidential field join together on stage at Rep. Jim Clyburn’s “World Famous Fish Fry” on Friday in Columbia, S.C. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

The meeting of 21 candidates here came at a turning point in the presidential primary. After crisscrossing the country for months on largely divergent paths, the candidates will collide next week for the first primary debates of the campaign. The fish fry — a mainstay on the presidential campaign circuit where candidates wearing blue Clyburn T-shirts posed for photographs with each other and with members of the crowd — served as a dress rehearsal for those debates.

In a state where a majority of the Democratic electorate is black, Biden, as he often does, invoked his connection to President Barack Obama when he called Clyburn “the highest ranking African American in the history of the United States of America, other than the guy I worked with for eight years.”

Later, Biden worked a rope line until nearly midnight, as the crowd thinned.

Biden wasn’t the only contender to receive a warm welcome. The crowd had chanted for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, too — and waved Kamala Harris-branded glow sticks for the California senator. Clyburn praised former Rep. Beto O’Rourke effusively for drawing attention to a House sit-in regarding gun violence by live-streaming it.

Longshot Andrew Yang, introduced by Clyburn as “the leader of the Yang Gang,” was joined by a throng of supporters when he repeated his familiar refrain, “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.”

The fish fry fell just days after Biden, at a fundraiser in New York, recalled that “at least there was some civility” during his decades in the U.S. Senate, touting his ability even to work with the late Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, both of whom were staunch segregationists.

Even if Biden escaped direct attacks on the issue Friday night, the controversy surrounding his comments about working with segregationists almost certainly has not been put to rest. Instead, it lurched forward on the sidelines of a weekend filled with party events here. Responding to reporters’ questions at venues Friday around Columbia, Biden’s rivals and their surrogates repeated their calls for Biden to apologize.

But the former vice president and his campaign remained defiant. Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager and communications director, said in an interview on CNN that Biden’s words were taken out of context.

“There is an attempt here to suggest Vice President Biden was praising segregationists,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Civil rights icon John Lewis joined several other prominent lawmakers in coming to Biden’s defense.

“I don’t think the remarks are offensive,” Lewis (D-Ga.) told reporters. “During the height of the civil rights movement we worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan — people who opposed us, even people who beat us, and arrested us and jailed us.”

South Carolina is a critical early voting state — the first significant test of candidates’ support among black voters in the South. In addition to the fish fry, candidates are expected to speak at a state party convention and at a Planned Parenthood forum on Saturday.

“I still think that it is wide open in South Carolina,” said Trav Robertson, the state Democratic Party chairman. “I don’t think South Carolina’s going to be won on name alone this year. There are just too many candidates and too many variables.”

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