Joe Biden spent the past week simmering in controversy after he used his ability to work with segregationist senators he disagreed with as an example of a more civil time in the US Senate.
Those comments drew a strong rebuke from his 2020 Democratic presidential rivals, but they barely amounted to a murmur here in the early primary state of South Carolina, where Democrats greeted the former vice president as their favorite son.
By virtue of his unique position as the former number two to the nation’s first black president and his long history with the Palmetto State, Biden is leading his closest rivals in South Carolina polls – an edge bolstered by his strong support among black voters who comprise more than 60% of the Democratic electorate here.
The deep well of affection and admiration for the former vice president was evident as soon as he rolled into Columbia Friday night for US Rep. Jim Clyburn’s “World-Famous Fish Fry” and the South Carolina Democratic Convention, where Biden and some 20 other candidates gave their pitch to voters back-to-back at a series of events.
In spite of the roiling controversy in the national news, interviews with several dozen voters at the Fish Fry demonstrated that Biden, at least for now, is still the run-away favorite here. Despite the sharp criticism from his rivals vying for the White House, those who said they had taken offense to Biden’s comments were the exception rather than the rule.
Many voters told CNN they had not followed the debate over Biden’s comments or even heard about it at all. When briefed on the details, most shrugged off that Biden said he had worked with segregationists – even though his views were diametrically opposed to theirs – noting that the ability to work with politicians who have opposite views is part of the skill of legislating.
“They need to leave it be,” said Cheri Reed, a 66-year-old Democrat from Columbia as she waited in line with friends for fish at Clyburn’s event on Friday night. She chided Democrats like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who criticized Biden for his remarks and called on him to apologize.
“We don’t need a rookie in the game right now. Because it’s the anti-Christ that we’re up against,” Reed said, referring to President Donald Trump. “He’s despicable. He’s destructive. He’s a liar. He’s trigger-happy. He’s everything that you don’t want in a President.”
Reed said she trusts Biden to take on Trump because “he is a seasoned warrior.” “Barack picked him for a reason,” she said, referring to former President Obama.
While Reed said she will consider other candidates, she acknowledged that she continues to have some trepidation about nominating another woman up against Trump: “It’s good to have a woman,” she said. “But she better be mighty doggone strong, because you’ve got to be somebody who can beat the devil. We don’t need anybody who is going to learn on the job. Not now. We’ve got to get him out.”
While Booker rebuked Biden this week because he viewed the comments as casting segregationists like Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia in a positive light, some South Carolina voters perceived Booker’s critique as “punching up” simply to get more attention in a crowded field.
“It was so unnecessary. What we’re trying to do is bring Trump down. We’ve got to come together,” said Shirley Cook, a 61-year-old nurse from Columbia. Cook said she will consider Booker and California Sen. Kamala Harris, but feels most comfortable with Biden “because of his honesty and integrity” and because “he’s the only one who can stand up against Trump.”
“Why do we have to fight?” said Wanda Moore, a 59-year-old retired supervisor at a plant and seed company who lives in Hodges, SC. “We should give our opinions, but we don’t have to fight.”
Moore, who was holding a Booker fan in the summer heat along with a thick sheaf of pamphlets from the other Democratic candidates at the Fish Fry, issued a warning to the candidates seeking to tear down Biden.
“The ones that are fighting – they are going to get dropped by the wayside. Someone is going to defeat them,” Moore said. She is leaning toward Biden because he “has the experience and a better attitude than a lot of them.”
“I see him as a humble person who cares about people,” Moore said. “He’s going to do what’s best for America, not what’s best for him or just being a bully like Trump.”
Perhaps as a tacit acknowledgment that there is little appetite for internecine battles within the party right now, the tension between Biden and Booker appeared to have dissipated by Friday night’s Fish Fry.
In an interview with MSNBC, Biden told Rev. Al Sharpton Saturday he understands why the invocation of the word “boy” is offensive — Biden said earlier this week that the segregationist southern senators called him “son” and not “boy.”
But he insisted Saturday that his use of the term at a recent fundraiser was not a racially-insensitive use of the term, and rather that “boy” was a reference to the older senators’ perception of his age as a young politician.
“I do understand the consequence of the word ‘boy,’” Biden told MSNBC’s Sharpton after speaking at the South Carolina Democratic Party’s convention. “But it wasn’t said in any of that context at all.”
Biden went on to note that Eastland and other senior senators were dismissive of younger members, including former Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, who Biden said Eastland had called “boy.”
“He said I’m not even qualified to be in the Senate,” Biden, who was 29 when he was elected to the Senate in 1972, said of Eastland. “I’m not old enough. I’m a kid.”
But Booker did not back down in having taken offense to the invocation of “boy.” When asked Saturday if the two had buried the hatchet, Booker responded that “there’s no hatchet.”
“I have a lot of respect and gratitude for the vice president, and I want folks to know I have nothing to apologize for when it comes to speaking truth to power,” he said.
While Biden initially responded to Booker’s call for an apology by saying that Booker was the one who should apologize because he “knows better” and that “there’s not a racist bone in my body” – the former vice president had abandoned that demand by Friday night.
“No one should apologize,” Biden told CNN Friday night at the Fish Fry. Shortly after that remark he walked toward Booker, tapped him on the shoulder and shared a quick hug with the New Jersey senator.
During a group photo with all of the candidates at the conclusion of the speeches on Friday night, Biden and Booker seemed intent on showing their unity before the cameras, standing next to one another in the back row, grinning and chatting as the other candidates got into place for the snapshot.
Melissa Fisch Wilson, a 39-year-old voter from Aiken, South Carolina, who works in marketing, said Biden’s comments bothered her, in part because she and her husband are an interracial couple.
“I read about it this morning. And it did hurt my interest a little bit,” Wilson said, noting that she is most keenly interested in Biden and Booker. “Where they stand on racial issues matters to me a lot. This is my family. So that is important to me. It is more personal, yes. I think about my kids growing up and I want them to live in a country where they are treated like everybody else and nobody thinks about what they look like. I read that story about that (Biden) history and I need to learn more about it.”
Her husband Michael Wilson, who is 37 and works at a manufacturing plant, said he has a lot of respect for Biden and what he has done “for this country,” but is far more interested in someone fresh.
“Especially in this race, we need somebody that doesn’t have things that he has to explain about his relationship with segregationists,” Michael Wilson said. “We need a new generation to take over. I am a really big fan of Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, but the guy who has got my vote is probably Andrew Yang.”
Though Biden is showing an early advantage here, the vigorous effort that all of the Democratic candidates put into wooing voters in the Palmetto State this weekend underscored that fierce competition that Biden is facing – and that there are many months to go before the February primary.
Alice Ernest of Simpsonville, who gave her age as one year younger than Biden, said she is considering Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Harris.
Ernest said Biden’s comments about working with segregationists hadn’t bothered her at all, but she has already ruled out Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I’d like somebody with a lot more energy, a lot more enthusiasm for some of the issues,” Ernest said during an interview at the Fish Fry.
Isaac Moore Sr., a 61-year-old retired social worker from Columbia, said he too was leaning toward Warren, but didn’t hold Biden’s recent comments against him.
“Like Biden said, you’ve got to work with everybody to get along,” Moore said. “Back in those days, that’s all there was – segregationists. So what he’s saying is perfectly all right with me, because it’s still that way. You still have to go across the aisle and work with those types of people today to get anything done.”
As has been evident in her steady rise in the polls, Warren was greeted with enthusiastic cheers throughout the weekend, along with Harris and Booker, who campaigned extensively here for months before Biden even entered the race.
While Biden’s controversial comments don’t seem to be hurting his appeal here, his chief hurdle is winning over voters who want to see the next generation inherit the Democratic mantle of power (even if those same voters see Biden as the “safe” choice against Trump).
Sioux Taylor, a Columbia retiree, said she likes and admired Biden, but believes it’s time for a new direction. Warren started capturing her interest about a month ago, she said, largely because of the series of specific plans she has announced.
“I support Joe – would like him to be one of the contenders, but I would like Elizabeth Warren to be the winner,” Taylor said. “I like where she’s coming from, what she represents, and I like her energy.”
CNN’s Greg Krieg, Annie Grayer, Dan Merica, Arlette Saenz and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.