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What To Expect In Tonight's Debate: Biden Needs The Palmetto State

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That’s because Tuesday’s Democratic debate won’t just be the last before South Carolina votes on Saturday, but also before 14 other states hold primaries on March 3, otherwise known as “Super Tuesday.”

So there’s a lot on the line — for frontrunner Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), of course, but also former Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden, who’s performed worse than initial expectations so far in the primary race, has positioned South Carolina as his stronghold — a state where the widespread support of African American voters could buoy him into a respectable performance in the next dozen competitions.

But as Sanders has risen in the polls, he seems to have poached support from Biden in South Carolina. Biden saw some uptick in recent days, perhaps due to an expected endorsement from the state’s Democratic kingmaker Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC). The former vice president currently has a slight lead, though polling in the state is always tough due to data scarcity.

The case remains: After losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Biden, who’s marketed himself as a general election “electability” candidate, has to prove his point in South Carolina.

Sanders, for his part, skated by without much challenge in the Las Vegas debate last week, as his competitors took pot shots at new race entrant Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg, as in Nevada, isn’t on the ballot in South Carolina, so it’s an open question whether Sanders will see any challenge to his frontrunner status as his competitors squabble among themselves on television — and whether Bloomberg will, as in Las Vegas, fail to make much of a positive case for himself amidst the barrage.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) fully embraced her reputation as a Senate scrapper in the Nevada debate, dinging her opponents on everything from health care to — gasp! — being “eager to be liked by Mitch McConnell.”

At times, when she was grilling Bloomberg on non-disclosure agreements he had several female employees of his sign, the image recalled her legendary grillings of corporate executives during Senate hearings.

The debate didn’t seem to do much for Warren in Nevada — she placed fourth — but her campaign noted that fundraising for the Massachusetts senator took off as a result of the debate brawl. The cash is badly needed for Warren, and she may try to pull off a similar performance Tuesday to keep the donations flowing.

One wildcard in South Carolina is Tom Steyer, the billionaire whose campaign has largely tottered along without breaking through in the early states. The former hedge fund manager is polling at a respectable third in South Carolina, which would be the best he’s performed in any contest. 

Steyer has invested heavily in South Carolina, staffing up in the state and spending plenty of time and money there, including millions on television ads and mailers.

“I’ve always said, money is a mother’s milk of politics,” Clyburn said in a recent CNN interview, the Times noted, referring to Steyer’s effort in the state. “He has money and is spending it. And so I think that will always make a difference.’’

Steyer’s policies seem to have played a role as well: At a speech in Columbia last month honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., the candidate’s loudest applause line came with something he’s championed on the campaign trail: “I’m for reparations.”

Steyer didn’t meet the Democratic Party’s qualifications to appear on the debate stage in Las Vegas. Now, back in the spotlight, he’ll have his chance to break from the pack.

About The Author

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Matt Shuham is a news writer for TPM. He was previously associate editor of The National Memo and managing editor of the Harvard Political Review. He is available by email at mshuham@talkingpointsmemo.com and on Twitter @mattshuham.