CHARLESTON: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, fresh off a feisty debate showing, received a key endorsement on Wednesday, boosting his hopes of winning the South Carolina primary and blunting the momentum of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Jim Clyburn, an influential member of the US House of Representatives from South Carolina, announced he was endorsing the 77-year-old former vice president at an event in Charleston.
“South Carolina should be voting for Joe Biden,” Clyburn said.
“It is time for us to restore this country’s dignity, this country’s respect. And I can think of no one better suited, better prepared.”
The endorsement of Clyburn, an African-American who is the third-ranking Democrat in the House, carries weight in South Carolina, where black voters make up a majority of the Democratic electorate.
South Carolina holds its Democratic presidential primary on Saturday, the last major test before “Super Tuesday” on March 3, when 14 states go to the polls and a whopping one-third of all delegates who pick the nominee at the party’s July convention are up for grabs.
Biden, who served as vice president for eight years to America’s first black president, Barack Obama, is counting on strong support among African-American voters in South Carolina to recharge his flagging campaign.
“Joe will build on President Obama’s legacy,” Clyburn said.
Biden was considered the frontrunner after jumping into the race but he came in fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and a distant second to Sanders in Nevada.
The 78-year-old Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist”, finished in a virtual tie with former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg in Iowa and then went on to win in New Hampshire and Nevada.
A strong performance in South Carolina could potentially allow Sanders to deliver a knockout blow to his rivals on Super Tuesday and all-but lock up the top spot on the Democratic ticket against Republican Donald Trump in November.
Sanders had a target on his back at Tuesday night’s debate in Charleston as his six opponents on the stage sought to derail his push for the Democratic nomination.
Biden accused Sanders of being soft on gun control while former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg claimed Russia wanted the Vermont senator to win the nomination – betting he would be defeated in November.
All of his rivals ganged up in describing Sanders as too radical to appeal to a broad swathe of Americans.
Fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren and centrists Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar laid into his ability to deliver on costly programmes such as universal healthcare and tuition-free public college.
Buttigieg, a 38-year-old military veteran presenting himself as a unifier, warned a Sanders fight against Trump would spell “chaos” and divide the nation.
“I tell you what it adds up to,” Buttigieg said.
“It ends up as four more years of Donald Trump.”
Sanders hit back at the charge his policies were too “radical”, insisting such ideas “exist in countries all over the world”, including the notion that healthcare is a human right.
“The way we beat Trump, which is what everybody up here wants, is we need a campaign of energy and excitement,” Sanders said.
“We need to bring working people back into the Democratic Party.”
Often talking over one another, the seven candidates aggressively vied for attention, locking horns on everything from housing to China policy, and whether or not to move the US embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv.
Biden put in a spirited performance and snapped back at moderators who tried to cut him off, telling them: “I’m not going to be quiet anymore, okay?”
Like Buttigieg, Bloomberg sought to cast a Sanders nomination as a sure path to losing.
“I’m the one choice that makes some sense,” said Bloomberg, touting his experience running America’s largest city for 12 years – a point hammered home in lavish televised ads during multiple commercial breaks.
The 78-year-old billionaire found himself under assault too, including by Warren, who called him “the riskiest candidate” on stage.
“I don’t care how much money mayor Bloomberg has. The core of the Democratic Party will never trust him,” the senator from Massachusetts said.
Bloomberg jumped late into the race, and has not been on the ballot in the four early states, opting instead to make a splash on Super Tuesday. He has now spent more than US$500 million on campaign advertising.