Joe Biden to opponents: If you come at me, I will hit back

Joe Biden to opponents: I will hit back
Joe Biden to opponents: I will hit back 02:49

Challenged by other presidential contenders over his civil rights record, Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden is warning his opponents ahead of next week's debates: if you come at me, this time I'm ready to hit back.

His threat comes amid yet another fight between the former vice president and Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker centered around race.

Biden and other Democrats appeared this week at conferences hosted by civil rights organizations, touting their plans to revamp the criminal justice system.

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Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. CBS News

But Biden also took time to defend his record on civil rights, in part by referencing President Barack Obama. "They did a significant background check on me for months with ten people – I doubt he would've picked me if these accusations about my being wrong on civil rights [were] correct," he said.

The former vice president's stance comes from an understanding that Democrats are looking most especially for the candidate they believe is best equipped to defeat President Donald Trump. Doing so likely requires a strong debate performance — and Biden knows he's got to step up his game at next week's debate.

Biden's lead over the Democratic field has slipped since the first debates in June, when Harris challenged Biden on his civil rights record. "Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose bussing in America?" she asked.

This week, Biden was asked about a CBS News poll that identified Harris as the "most strong" candidate among Democratic voters. "I was probably overly polite," he said of his performance.

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CBS News

In a radio interview Thursday, he also raised questions about Harris' motives at the first debate. "I thought we were friends," Biden said. "I mean, I hope we still will be. You know, she asked me to go to her convention and be the guy from outside of California to nominate her at her convention for the Senate seat. I did."

Biden, Harris, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker will be front-and-center at a debate next Wednesday.

Booker is raising doubts about Biden's new plan to revamp federal sentencing laws and drug policy, since the former vice president backed tough-on-crime bills in the 1990s.

"For a guy who helped to be an architect of mass incarceration, this is an inadequate solution," Booker said.

But Biden hit back, raising questions about Booker's past record as mayor of Newark, New Jersey. "His police department was stopping and frisking people, mostly African American men," Biden said. "If he wants to go back and talk about records, I'm happy to do that. But I'd rather talk about the future."

Our CBS News Battleground Tracker Poll out this week gives Biden a double-digit lead over his rivals in the early primary state of South Carolina, driven in part by deep support for him among black voters.