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"So what?": South Carolina Democrats not bothered by Joe Biden's gaffes

Do voters care about Biden's gaffes?

Gaffney, South Carolina — In the past month alone, Joe Biden has confused New Hampshire for Vermont, compared poor kids to white kids, and said he met with students from the 2018 Parkland shooting while he was vice president. He told an audience he wasn't "going nuts," after he failed to remember the exact location of a speech he had just given. And a story he told about awarding a war hero turned out not to be entirely true

The string of summer slip-ups would seem to reinforce Biden's gaffe-prone reputation and raise questions about his central pitch of electability. But for many voters who came to see him during a campaign swing through early voting state South Carolina, the former vice president's slips of the tongue made him all the more endearing.

"He's always made them! I don't think he is doing anything differently than he's always done," said Polly Iyer, a writer from Spartanburg. "He always has his foot in his mouth." 

Iyer is still making up her mind about which candidate to support in the Democratic primary, but said Biden's propensity for misspeaking wouldn't be a deterrent. "I think his heart is in the right place and that's what we need right now," she said. "He may not have been my top candidate, but I think he has the best chance of winning the Midwest. And that's crucial." 

Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden Holds South Carolina Town Hall
Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden addresses a crowd at a town hall event at Clinton College on August 29, 2019 in Rock Hill, South Carolina.  Sean Rayford / Getty Images

Several voters interviewed by CBS News said Biden's mistakes make him more relatable. 

"So what? I do too," said Will Cokley, a general manager and South Carolina native living in Charlotte who came to see Biden in Rock Hill. "He's human. It makes him real, not scripted."

Biden continues to top national polls, and enjoys a particularly strong lead in South Carolina. That lead is attributable to his support among African-American voters, especially those who are older. The notion that voters here seem eager to overlook his flaws because they feel he relates to them helps explain why he is doing well in the Palmetto State. 

Jackie Willet, a retiree from Rock Hill said "so do I," when asked about Biden's gaffes. "I don't think he does anything more than the average person would do. And I think that's what makes him likable. He's very smart. He knows the system and he's a gentleman. And that's important."

Jordan Phillips, an assistant at a local elementary school in Gaffney, said that Biden is his first choice and that his verbal missteps won't take away from his popularity in the state. "The gaffes don't matter because we all mess up, we're all human," said Phillips. "Most politicians, they claim to be perfect but they're not…we have to just be real with ourselves…that's what people look for — is real, the realness in a person."

Biden has made so many gaffes during his political career that they have come to be expected and are often seen as an extension of the man himself. And his supporters don't dispute that he is prone to misspeak. On the campaign trail, Biden often pokes fun at himself. During a town hall in Spartanburg, he joked "not that I ever say anything that gets me in trouble." 

But it isn't always without consequence. He ended his first bid for the presidency after a plagiarism scandal. Now that he is one of the oldest candidates running for president, his propensity to misspeak is coming under greater scrutiny. 

And with daily scandals coming from the current occupant of the White House, there are questions about whether Democrats will penalize Biden in search of a more perfect orator or be more willing to forgive him because of President Trump's own imperfections. 

"Sometimes I think he's not quite tough enough to take on Trump…He's already called him Sleepy Joe and made fun of the gaffes he's made, even when Trump called Dayton Toledo right after the gun massacre," said Gaffney resident Nancy Clarkson Fowler. Still, she said, Biden makes up for it in his experience and his foreign policy expertise.

Dyanne Lyles, a retired art teacher from Spartanburg who is backing Biden, said there may be more emphasis on the former vice president's gaffes because of his age. "But I think he's no worse than this man we got now," she said. "He's a family man and an honest man. And I think he does the right thing."

"I do the same thing! I'm 20 years younger than him and I do the same thing all the time. That doesn't bother me one bit," Lisa LaFranca of Fort Mill said of Biden's gaffes. "I have a father that's older than him and he does it." 

The so-called gaffes do not worry some of Biden's biggest monetary backers, either.

"Every politician has a gaffe now and then — ask Mitt Romney," lawyer John Morgan told CBS News. Morgan also drew contrast between Biden's verbal slip ups and Mr. Trump's words, which he said "aren't gaffes but a constant spewing of hatred."

"I choose to judge Joe Biden by a long life of service and ethics. His suffering has made him an even better man. He understands pain," Morgan added. 

Biden supporters at various events across the country also say that while the energy of his stump speech might ebb and flow, his one-on-one interactions on the rope line after his events are the main attraction.

Wendi Conte said that when she went to Biden's Spartanburg town hall this week, the issue of Biden's gaffes "was in the back of my mind, and that was one reason why I wanted to come." But, she said, "It was 100% different to hear him in person than on TV. He was much different. I didn't hear any gaffes today. You could feel he meant what he was saying." 

Still, the consistency of misstatements has the potential to cause problems or at least distractions for the campaign. While he was in South Carolina, The Washington Post reported Biden had conflated several stories into one about awarding a medal to a Navy captain in Afghanistan.  "In the space of three minutes, Biden got the time period, the location, the heroic act, the type of medal, the military branch and the rank of the recipient wrong, as well as his own role in the ceremony," the Post reported.

In an interview with The Post and Courier after his town hall in Rock Hill Biden dismissed the idea that "that there's anything I said about that that wasn't the essence of the story."

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