The former vice president will attend a key event in the state Friday amid criticism over his comments about having worked with segregationist Democrats.
CHARLESTON, S.C. — The race here is Joe Biden's to lose.
Even as more than 20 other Democratic presidential hopefuls make a pilgrimage to the Palmetto State this weekend, the former vice president is positioned to control his own fate in large part because of the early strength he's shown with the black voters who make up a majority of the electorate.
Biden's high name recognition, inextricable association with former President Barack Obama and wide approval among Democrats overall have him winning a healthy plurality of black voters in polls around the country. That trend is more pronounced in South Carolina, where he has the support of 52 percent of black Democrats, besting the next-closest candidate by 38 points, according to a recent Post and Courier-Change Research Poll of likely voters.
In interviews with NBC News, black South Carolina voters, activists and politicians — some who support him and some who don't — stressed that Biden's strength is genuine, fueled by his decades of political experience, regular trips to the state and long-standing relationships with its leaders.
But, as he prepares to attend South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn's "World Famous Fish Fry" on Friday amid criticism over his comments about having worked with segregationist Democrats, there is plenty of opportunity for his lead to go soft.
"He still has to be visible in the African-American community," Angela Geter, chair of the Spartanburg County Democrats, told NBC News in an interview. "He can't just do a few church visits, and, you know, put a fork in it and say that's done. I think he does have to reintroduce himself to the African American community. And I think if he can successfully do that, then I think he absolutely will have the African American vote."
As people here like to say, South Carolina, the fourth state to vote in the Democratic nominating contest, picks winners. Of all the contested Democratic primaries held in the state since it first adopted a primary in 1992, only one winner — South Carolina-born John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator — did not go on to win the party's nomination.
"That's the whole story, man," Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, told NBC News. "It's ground zero, baby, ground zero."
"That is a place where the vice president has a leg up, folks are familiar with him, they like him," Benjamin added. "His lead here is real. I want people to understand that. He has deep and abiding relationships here in South Carolina and a great deal of good will and respect. I do believe that it is still very early, however, and that even he is going to have to work to hold on to that lead."
And then there's the Obama factor.
"A lot of that goes to the heart of his support," Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democratic state representative from Orangeburg, said.
"And for a lot of black folk, because they see him, accurately, I would think, as Obama's wing man, that's a good thing," she added. "People are appreciative that he carried out that role, and did it well."
Obama hasn't endorsed Biden in the race, and there is little reason to think he will make any endorsement in the coming months. But that hasn't stopped Biden from touting his ties to the most recent Democratic president, who remains popular with party voters across demographic lines.
"A combination of things" have rallied black voters behind Biden early, Clyburn told NBC News in an interview. "I don't think it's any one thing. If I were to look back, I would say that eight years as a big supporter [of] Barack Obama as the first African American President of the United States is very, very important. And Barack Obama said himself that of all the decisions he made, selecting Biden was the best one he made. I don't see how you get a better endorsement, and that's what he said."
Perhaps more important, though, is the perception among African American voters, fueled by head-to-head polling matchups and Biden's own sales pitch, that he is the Democrat best-positioned to win the general election.
The Rev. Joe Darby, the senior pastor at Nichols Chapel AME Church in Charleston, told NBC News that voters are laser-focused on making sure that the party chooses a nominee who can defeat President Donald Trump. Pointing to voters he's spoken to who regret their votes in 2016 for Green Party nominee Jill Stein, Darby said, "I don't think anybody is going to want to make a statement this time around."
To Darby, Biden looks like the candidate who can best take on Trump. But many who spoke with NBC News noted that black voters in the state are still getting to know Biden's primary competition, almost all of whom are also going to be at Clyburn's fish fry on Friday ahead of the state party convention on Saturday, which Biden is also scheduled to attend. As those candidates' messages begin to break through, they could start chipping away at the former vice president's advantage.
And voters as well as local leaders want to see who takes the lead on issues like solving the student debt crisis, providing more affordable health care, addressing economic inequality and making high-quality education accessible, all of which came up in conversations with South Carolinians.
Focusing just on "who can beat Trump would miss the other part of the conversation that needs to be had," Cobb-Hunter said.
Still, Biden's biggest challenge may come in the form of his own record — and himself.
Multiple 2020 contenders and Trump have taken aim at Biden for co-authoring the 1994 crime bill, which played a role in the increase of mass incarceration across the country. And, just this week, he was widely criticized by candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, for reminiscing about the "civility" that marked his time working with segregationist senators.
Darby, who was interviewed before Biden's most recent remarks, said he's known the former vice president for more than 20 years, and that his "refreshing tendency to be himself" could prove helpful.
"He's not one of these people that comes to a black church and tries to prove that they're as black as the people that they're with," he said. "He's himself."
Clyburn, who voted for the crime bill, has hit critics for "misrepresenting" the legislation. He also publicly defended Biden after the segregationist comments, telling reporters Wednesday that Biden "didn't say anything more than that what described my work with Strom Thurmond and a few others." Thurmond, a longtime South Carolina senator, was an ardent segregationist for much of his career.
Echoing Clyburn, Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, the former Congressional Black Caucus chairman and national co-chair of Biden's campaign, told NBC News he felt Biden's comments this week were "taken out of context" and asked "what's the difference between the CBC and Democratic members working with the Trump administration to pass criminal criminal justice reform last year?"
"We don't like Trump," Richmond said. "He acts like a racist, he institutes racial policies, he says racist things. But in order to get criminal justice reform done, we worked with him. Did we like it? Probably not, but we had to do it."
Still, the issue of Biden's collaborations with segregationist lawmakers is one likely to continue to follow him on the trail. He and a segregationist bloc of Southern Democrats and Republicans worked together for several years in the 1970s and 1980s to limit the power of the federal government to integrate schools — a part of his Senate record that Biden and his allies tend to omit.
But there are challenges for Biden beyond getting stuck talking about his past rather than his plans for the future, including appealing to younger voters of color. "They are not necessarily in that camp yet," Cobb-Hunter
Kyra March, 19, of Darlington is a rising sophomore at Harvard College and an intern for Atlanta-based Black Voters Matter. She told NBC News she feels "a lot of older people look at Biden first because he's more notable."
"A lot of the younger people aren't really thinking about that," she said, contending that the next generations are looking for change.
Bailey Hightower, 18, a Warren volunteer, expressed her admiration for the Massachusetts senator's flurry of plans and policy proposals, but said she thought "Biden is more electable and has a better chance in the general election." Her mother, Kay Hightower, 54, an attorney, and her grandmother, Sioux Taylor, 87, also Warren supporters, politely disagreed.
"In my opinion, African Americans like Biden because they know who he is. He has high name recognition," Kay Hightower said. "People don't know her. When she gets her message out, she will change minds and hearts."
The two older women said Warren captivated the room at the Black Economic Alliance forum in Charleston last weekend.
"From this moment on, her name will resonate," Taylor said.
Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, said all signs pointed to a still-unsettled race.
"I've seen a great deal of fluidity amongst all the candidate support," he said. "The people are very happy with the quality in the field. There's a good deal of consternation 'cause there's so many damn choices."
Allan Smith reported from New York, and Jon Allen from Charleston.