CHARLESTON, S.C. ― Former Vice President Joe Biden is taking an aggressive stance ahead of South Carolina’s presidential primary on Saturday, a must-win contest for him as he seeks his first victory in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Biden and his aides are presenting a sharper contrast with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the clear front-runner, after finishing second behind the senator in the Nevada caucuses over the weekend. The Vermont independent has continued to make gains with voters in South Carolina, especially among Black voters who make up nearly two-thirds of the party here.
The renewed focus on Sanders is a sign of things to come at Tuesday’s Democratic primary debate in Charleston amid growing angst from the Democratic Party establishment about a self-described democratic socialist being the nominee and the potential repercussions of that on down-ballot candidates in the November general election.
On Monday, Biden’s campaign released a digital ad accusing Sanders of attempting to undercut President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 by threatening to challenge him in the primary.
“When it comes to building on Barack Obama’s legacy, Bernie Sanders just can’t be trusted,” the narrator in the 1-minute spot says in the ad, which was first reported by Politico.
The ad cited a report in The Atlantic that said Sanders was considering launching a primary against Obama ahead of his reelection fight in 2012. Sanders’s campaign denied it, however, saying it “never happened.”
Though he also launched an attack against Sanders over his past stance on immigration reform at last week’s debate in Las Vegas, the former vice president directed most of his fire at former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is threatening Biden’s support among more moderate voters in coming primary contests.
That changed over the weekend in response to an interview Sanders gave about how much his various plans, such as cancellation of student debt and “Medicare for All” would cost in total if implemented.
“I can’t rattle off to you every nickel and every dime. But we have accounted for... Medicare for All. We have options out there that will pay for it,” Sanders said on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
Sanders has proposed paying for his proposals through a tax on the wealthiest Americans, as well as some tax increases on the middle class he said would be offset by lowered health care costs. But that didn’t satisfy Biden’s campaign, which accused Sanders of misleading the public.
“A president has to be straight with the American people about his or her agenda,” Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement on Sunday. “It’s not possible to promise that everything will be paid for or that a new agenda won’t damage our economy — or cause a recession — if you don’t know how much it will cost in the first place.”
If Democratic voters are deeply concerned about the cost of policies discussed by their presidential candidates, they haven’t shown it yet, at least not at the polls. Sanders has now won all three early nominating contests ― Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada ― and he’s in striking distance of pulling an upset over Biden in South Carolina, according to the latest NBC News poll on the campaign.
The Biden campaign also took a whack at Sanders after he refused to condemn everything about the communists’ Cuban Revolution in the 1950s during the same “60 Minutes” interview. His answer prompted heated criticism from some Cuban Americans and Democrats in South Florida, which has a large Cuban American population
“We already have one president who praises dictators and their mob-like tendencies; we don’t need another one,” senior Biden adviser Cristóbal Alex said in a statement Monday.
One issue that is likely to come up at Tuesday’s Democratic debate here is gun violence. Last week, Biden criticized Sanders for his past votes against gun control measures in the 1990s, including the Brady Act, which mandated federal background checks and a waiting period for some handgun purchases. The senator has since come out in support of stricter gun control policies.
Speaking at a campaign event at the College of Charleston on Monday, Biden said the victims of the bloody 2015 Charleston church shooting, which took place just a few blocks away, would be alive if his gun policies had not been rolled back by the Republican Party.
“I’ve got news for you, gun manufacturers: I’m coming for you, and I’m going to take you down,” Biden said to applause from the crowd of about 700, according to his campaign.
The former vice president also expressed confidence about his chances of winning the Democratic nomination due to the more diverse electorate in the Palmetto State.
“It all starts here in South Carolina,” Biden said. “It looks like America. It’s made up of people that are different, diverse ― all of what America is about.”
Bruce Cunningham, 66, a retired teacher from Charleston who listened to Biden’s speech on Monday, said he planned to vote for him in Saturday’s primary even though he believes his campaign is “struggling right now.”
“Some of the lower-ranking moderates need to drop out because we’ve got to stop Bernie,” Cunningham told HuffPost, expressing concern about what his nomination might mean for the Democratic Party’s chances in November.
“I don’t think his ideas are what’s right for now,” he added. “But if he gets the nomination, I’ll be fully behind him [to stop Trump].”