GEORGETOWN, S.C. – Joe Biden's political future depends on convincing South Carolina's black voters to rally behind his flagging campaign. But Tom Steyer has spent millions trying to win those same voters and visited a historic black church in this coastal town on Wednesday to make a final pitch that they should consider him instead.
“South Carolina gets to reset this election,” the billionaire activist said.
Half a mile away, Biden was receiving a warm welcome from about 200 voters. State Rep. Carl Anderson, who is black, sought to dismiss the threat from Biden's wealthier rivals.
“We got the right person,” Anderson said. “Biden doesn't have a lot of money, so he's on our level, right?”
In the closing days of the South Carolina campaign, Steyer is continuing to be an uncertain factor in Biden's effort to rebound from early losses with a commanding win in Saturday's primary. There's little chance that Steyer will win the first-in-the-South contest, but he's invested heavily here and has racked up a slew of endorsements from members of the state's Legislative Black Caucus, two of whom he has hired on as national advisers. He earned the backing on Thursday of Korey Wise, a black man who spent 12 years in prison for a rape in Central Park that he didn't commit.
That's fueled concerns that Steyer may be a spoiler, winning votes that might have gone to Biden, resulting in a narrower-than-expected victory that would make it harder for the former vice president to go into the pivotal Super Tuesday contexts next week with momentum.
“The more Steyer pulls from the African American community, that pulls from Joe Biden," said Amanda Loveday, former executive director of South Carolina's Democratic Party and a longtime Biden supporter.
There are encouraging developments for Biden in South Carolina. Though some polls earlier this month suggested Biden's lead in South Carolina was narrowing, a survey released Thursday by Monmouth University found him with a significant margin over Steyer and Bernie Sanders, who is also stepping up appeals to black voters.
Biden also won the coveted endorsement this week of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who is the highest ranking African American in Congress.
But Steyer has the largest footprint in the state with a staff of more than 100 employees. He has poured more than $60 million into running near-constant online and television ads in South Carolina. Steyer began airing a new television ad this week in South Carolina saying Biden is a “good man” who has “admitted nothing will change if he’s elected."
In an interview, Steyer said he became more bullish about his chances in South Carolina after Biden's low finish in this month's Iowa caucuses.
“It's going to be a question of who can attract a broad coalition, who can go to the actual Democratic party and put together a coalition to beat Trump," Steyer said in an interview. “That's why I've spent so much time in South Carolina. That's why we have so many people on the ground. That's going to be what counts.”
Biden is adamant that he will win South Carolina in his first victory of the 2020 campaign. But he has stepped up his criticims of Steyer recently, accusing him during Tuesday's debate of buying “a system that was a private prison system after he knew that, in fact, what happened was they hogtied young men in prison,” a reference to the purchase by Steyer's hedge fund of a private prison system and allegations of abuse.
Steyer has said he sold the stock after probing the situation.
His efforts appear to be resonating. At campaign events across the state, some voters have mentioned both Biden and Steyer as among those they're considering, naming them as contrasting figures to more progressive candidates like Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
At Wednesday's meet and greet for Steyer in Georgetown, 49-year-old Lisa Phelan said she hadn't made up her mind but was considering both of them — in addition to billionaire former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is not on the ballot here. Her husband, 50-year-old Sean Phelan, nodded, saying he saw Biden as someone who had served his country well, but who had served enough time in office already.
"I like Tom's message," Phelan said, as organizers set up more rows of chairs and people streamed into a church fellowship hall.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Georgetown, South Carolina, contributed to this report.