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South Carolina Democratic voters seem willing to look past party purity tests

Dems urge unity at South Carolina fish fry

Columbia -- South Carolina may be considered the culinary capital of the early presidential primary states (at the very least, it's the only one with a major political event centered around a particular food), but there is one thing voters here aren't hungry for: division in the party.

That sentiment offered some refuge for former Vice President Joe Biden when he landed here over the weekend after facing a torrent of criticism from his 2020 rivals and political prognosticators for his comments about his ability to work with known segregationists, even as he opposed their views.

His reception here could help inform how candidates approach the party's perceived frontrunner as they prepare for their first presidential primary debate in Miami this week.

Interviews with Democratic voters here over the past several days suggest they're more willing to look past party purity tests and candidate controversies in pursuit of a greater goal: defeating President Trump.

"Personally, I think we all need to grow up. We can be a bit thin-skinned about things," said Pamela Bynoe-Reed, who does not plan to hold Biden's recent comments against him. While she has not decided who she will vote for in the primary, Biden along with former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, were two of her top choices.

Other African-American residents acknowledged some discomfort with Biden's remarks, but stressed they were not a top priority and wouldn't hold the remarks against him.

"I accept the mainstream concept of what he saying," J. Marie Green, who is backing California Sen. Kamala Harris. "It's what was accepted at the time. In this new era, he needs to change his behavior. And behavior can be changed...I do think he has good credentials."

Thaddeus Wayne Jones Jr., called Biden's remarks "insensitive," but hoped to elect a president who is above the day-to-day controversies.

"What we currently have is someone who goes tit-for-tat with the soundbites, and that is just not what we need in a Commander-in-Chief," said Jones Jr. "We need someone who's going to be able to rise above the fray of that everyday back and forth and let his actions speak instead of trying to be the next sound bite."

Even voters supporting other candidates were reluctant to pile on Biden, expressing a certain amount of reverence toward the former vice president that isn't as easily afforded to him in other early states.

"I've worked with some of the segregationists, too," said Bernice Scott, a longtime Democratic activist and former councilwoman in Columbia. "Mr. Biden, I've met him several times, I've got some pictures with him...I think he was just trying to tell people what he had done and who he'd worked with."

Scott leads a group of black women voters who call themselves "the Reckoning Crew" and have endorsed California Sen. Kamala Harris. During a monthly meeting on Thursday, one of the group's members asked what they should make of the controversy surrounding Biden. Scott said they couldn't afford to get distracted, and then engaged in a call and response: "We are what? Focused! What's the word? Focus!"

The CBS News battleground tracker poll found that Biden's lead here is bolstered by his support from African American voters, who make up 60 percent of the primary electorate in South Carolina. Eighty-three percent of black voters cited Biden's connections to former President Barack Obama as a reason they are inclined to support him.

Biden met with African American leaders here on Friday before heading to the "World Famous Fish Fry" hosted by Rep. James Clyburn, the highest-ranking black lawmaker in Congress.

Former South Carolina State Representative Fletcher Smith attended the meeting and he said that most of the people in the room were already committed to Biden. He also added that the attendees didn't feel the need to bring up Biden's controversial remarks.

South Carolina State Senator Marlon Kimpson, who also attended the meeting, echoed this sentiment and said that the former vice president's history shows he's a champion for civil rights. Much like the voters who felt Biden's remarks weren't detrimental to his run, Kimpson maintained that the black leaders in the room weren't concerned with the news of the week.

"People who know the vice president take him at his word, they look at his actions, and are comfortable with his statements," said Kimpson. "Going forward I don't think you'll hear him use those words and this may be a learning experience."

But that doesn't mean his lead in the state is definite. Voters here stressed that they are still shopping around for candidates. And they still have time. South Carolina's primary, which is seen as the launching pad to similarly diverse but larger Super Tuesday states, doesn't take place until February 29th. And party leaders here stress that Biden can't take his support for granted.

"The vice president's strength here is real and there is a deep and abiding relationship here in South Carolina," said Columbia Mayor Stephen Benjamin. "But I will tell you that there are a whole slate of other candidates who've made significant inroads here, who are grinding out on the ground, put together real organizations, honing their message, listening to the South Carolinians."

The response appeared to be similar to Biden's much criticized flip-flop on the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother. At Planned Parenthood Action Fund's We Decide: 2020 Election Membership Forum on Saturday, many attendees agreed the greatest priority was beating President Trump. Twenty presidential candidates took the stage at the event, but Biden's appearance received one of the warmest responses. And the audience nodded along as he explained his position change.

Even as candidates took turns making the case for their own candidacies this past weekend, they, too, seemed to hold off on criticism unless directly asked. And to stress the point, they all posed for a group photo after the fish fry wearing the same blue t-shirt.

"When the primary is over, we become a united force," New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said on the stage Friday night.

Booker had been among the most critical of Biden throughout the week, taking to prime time cable news shows to make his case against the comments made by the former vice president. But in South Carolina, he focused on his campaign and the broader goal for Democrats.

"I've said my piece about the vice president, who I have a lot of respect for," Cory Booker told CBS. "This is much bigger than me and him. It's about the people. And I look forward to working hard to let folks in South Carolina know that I can represent them well [and] I can beat Donald Trump."

The show of unity over the weekend was all fish fry attendee Carolyn B. Thompson had asked for.

"I would ask that the candidates be civil to each other. Focus on the issues not downing each other because I think we're going to be seeing a lot of that with our current president," she said. "Focus on the issues, stay civil and lets bring this country together."

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