Bolstered by His Lead, Freewheeling Biden Lets Loose in S.C.

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CONWAY, S.C. — Joe Biden was feeling himself Thursday night. And the former vice president has reason for confidence: The Palmetto State looks to be his for the taking.

He fled New Hampshire two weeks ago in the middle of the night, headed south before the disappointing results were even reported. After landing in South Carolina, he told supporters that the other early states were “the opening bell, not the closing bell.”

It sounded like desperation at the time. Now, in retrospect, it sounds like prescience.

According to the RealClearPolitics average, Biden leads Bernie Sanders by nearly 13 percentage points in South Carolina. The lead comes after Tuesday’s Charleston debate and a performance that many observers described as one of his very best.

And so, as Biden has travelled throughout the state, he’s seemed to relax. At his last stop on Thursday, the former front-runner was animated and energetic, bopping around the stage so much that one voter worried the elder statesman might fall. Biden, in short, had returned to free-wheeling “Uncle Joe” form.

“Authenticity is one of his greatest strengths and why he is going to remain in this race,” a senior Biden aide told RCP as the event ended but voters stuck around to meet-and-greet the candidate. “Look, there is a reason why he sticks around to shake every hand in this place — he understands people and he makes genuine connections.”

He also talks from the top of his head. Biden barely consulted his notes when addressing a capacity crowd here at Coastal Carolina University. He spoke about everything from his time in the White House to the need for national renewal. He also made sure voters heard about how he turned down Barack Obama.

It was 2008, and Biden was talking to his mother. The Democratic presidential nominee had asked the also-ran if he would join his ticket. Biden passed. But his mother reminded him, in this telling, of how he had protested racial injustice as a child and then went out of his way to work as a lifeguard in an African American community and later took a job in the public defender’s office.

“She looked at me -- I swear to God, absolutely true story -- she says, ‘Joe, the first black man in history has a chance to be elected president. He says he needs you to win Pennsylvania, Ohio, and some other states, and you told him no?’” Biden recalled.

 “I said, ‘Damn, Mom. What are you doing?’ So, I picked up the phone, and I said ‘OK, Barack, go ahead and vet me.’ Best decision I ever made.”

The line got loud applause. It is also a major selling point in a state that Obama carried during the Democratic primary by double digits. Biden’s old boss remains popular here, a fact that the candidate regularly uses to his advantage.

He noted how Bernie Sanders, the current front-runner, reportedly toyed with the idea of a 2012 primary challenge to the sitting president. And then Biden followed up by arguing that “this nation isn’t looking for revolution,” a reference to the democratic socialist’s proposals. “It’s looking for results to improve people’s lives.”

Noreen Margaret of nearby Myrtle Beach told RCP that she “loved Obama,” and plans to vote for Biden on Saturday. Although, she added before the event started, “I’ll vote for anyone who wins the nomination. I’d even vote for my dog!” But she doubts whether Sanders can “pull over people from the center.”

Biden also argued for gun control, pointing out how Sanders voted against legislation that would hold gun manufacturers legally liable “for the carnage in the streets.” Biden later insisted that he isn’t anti-gun. “I support the Second Amendment. I own a 12-guage shotgun, a 20-guage shotgun, I used to skeet-shoot. But nobody needs an assault weapon.”

Sharon Nordi, also of Myrtle Beach, supports the Second Amendment. Before the event, she said she supports Biden and gun control too. “I own two handguns,” she told RCP, “and five shots is enough to take [a bad guy] down.”

Biden talked about our divided nation and that he refuses “to believe the proposition that we cannot be united again.”

Edward and Patricia Nelson, a husband-and-wife law school student and graduate student, respectively, told RCP they were planning to vote for Elizabeth Warren. Then, they attended the Biden rally. “He has an ongoing relationship with Obama,” Edward said. “Joe was right there to see things, even before [Warren] got appointed,” a reference to the administrative post she held to help create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Biden also said some off-the-wall things, the sort of things that Republicans lick their chops over. For instance, he returned to his China refrain.

“If you take a look at it, China -- and I’m not happy about this -- China doesn’t have enough water. W-A-T-E-R. They’re talking about spending hundreds of billions of dollars to try to turn around their rivers so their people have potable water to drink,” Biden said.

“The idea that they're our competition and they’re going to beat us is bizarre, if we remember who we are.”

He also floated the idea of subsidizing a foreign country to offset climate change, of paying Brazil to keep the Amazon intact so that the rainforest could absorb more carbon.

“I’m going to go down and make sure we have an altar call with our friends from down in Brazil. I’ll say, ‘Here’s the deal: I’ll organize the world; we will pay you $20 billion not to clear-cut. We will help you invest in other activities so that you don’t have to, in fact, increase exponentially the likelihood that climate change continues to be out of control,’” Biden promised.

“It’s called international relations. It’s called diplomacy. It’s called being smart,” he continued.  

The crowd enjoyed all of this, and Biden did too. Then, after fielding questions from the audience, one last hand shot up.  

"The majority of the world's population growth takes place in the poorest countries in the world, where women aren't being empowered,” said Aruin Cherukuri, a student at Georgetown. “What will you do to help empower women in the world's poorest countries?"

Biden responded that no, population is not expanding. Instead, it is doing the opposite. And what followed was a more than 20-minute answer that wandered from global population to federal taxpayer funding of abortion to women’s equality. Toward the end, and after touching on the responsibility fraternity brothers have for intoxicated co-eds, the former vice president started talking about the Violence Against Women Act. And he kept talking.

"No man has a right to lay a hand on a woman for any reason other than self-defense," Biden said. “If someone in this room got up and took off all their clothes and walked out the door, no man is allowed to touch her."

It was an odd statement of fact. One college student, who won’t be voting in South Carolina and who declined to give her name, said it was “a little seedy,” But, she continued, “he isn’t wrong.”



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