CHARLESTON, S.C. — It was the last first dance before Super Tuesday, and some are stumbling, others are barely holding on, and only one is truly surging. Somehow, they all made it to supper.
Presidential hopefuls arrived Monday night for the First in the South Dinner, five days before the South Carolina primary and 350 years after the founding of this scenic, historic town. Well-heeled donors know their political courtships are coming to an end, and the remaining Democratic candidates understood that this might be their final shot to make a positive impression.
One by one, they gave brief, mostly polite speeches as the audience tucked into chicken and salmon. Not far from here, candidates will tear into one Tuesday night during the South Carolina debate, set for broadcast on CBS at 8 p.m. Eastern Time.
Everyone knows the stakes: The most compelling debater could walk away Saturday with a lion’s share of the state’s 63 delegates. More importantly, the primary winner will enjoy loads of free media — and momentum — after winning the last of the early states. The debate’s poor performers, however, will have to come to terms with an ugly realization.
“Reality sets in on Wednesday,” Jay Parmley said of the morning after the debate. “And then more reality sets in on Sunday,” the executive director of the South Carolina Democratic told RealClearPolitics. “This ends it for us. It’s the last crush.”
After the Palmetto State renders its verdict, candidates without a win to their name will find it harder and harder to break through — and to pull in the money needed to sustain a campaign. It is the last state to go it alone before Super Tuesday when 14 others, accounting for about 40% of the voting population, go to the polls together. Joe Biden knows this better than most and believes he has built his firewall in the Deep South. But it may crumble and break his heart.
The former vice president and former front-runner came in fourth in Iowa and then fifth in New Hampshire and finally second in Nevada. None of those results really matter because “South Carolina is gonna determine who the next president of the United States is going to be,” he said Monday night.
Biden told the capacity crowd that they made Bill Clinton president in the same way they sent his old boss, Barack Obama, to the White House. “And I have a simple proposition,” Biden continued. “I’m here to ask you for your help.”
According to the RealClearPolitics average, he could use it. Biden leads in South Carolina, but Bernie Sanders has cut into that lead — substantially. The Vermont senator trails him by just five percentage points, down from double digits at the beginning of the month. An army of aides and pollsters and analysts has certainly kept Biden abreast of these depressing numbers, but he didn’t seem to mind at the banquet. He projected an easy confidence and didn’t even use all his allotted time. “I got a minute 23 seconds left,” he said before walking off the stage.
Whether the swagger is warranted or not, no one took a shot at the former longtime senator from Delaware. Other candidates mostly stuck to their stump speeches, except for when they deviated to go after the new front-runner.
“I have come to appreciate and respect my friend Sen. Sanders, even more during the course of this race, and I share his ideals,” said Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and one of the moderates vying for the nomination. “But I also believe that we must make promises we can keep in this election.”
Across town at a voter forum hosted by CNN, Buttigieg kept up that critique, insisting he is the best alternative to the democratic socialist “because I am the only who has beaten him this year, anywhere.” (That’s true in terms of Iowa “delegate equivalents,” but not in terms of the raw vote there.)
While the mayor focused on electability, billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer made an ideological argument. He told the crowd that he credits Sanders for identifying “some of the biggest questions facing America.” Steyer just doesn’t buy his revolution solution.
“I profoundly disagree with” that approach,” the billionaire political newcomer said. “I have never thought that having a government take over major portions of the American economy was a good idea. I don’t think it works for working people. I don’t think it works with families. It’s been tried thousands of times, and it’s never worked.”
Later at the CNN town hall, Steyer seemed to double down. Was it appropriate for Sanders to praise Fidel Castro, the late dictator of communist China? No, he replied. It was “inappropriate.”
Sanders has argued that it is possible to praise the dictator’s social programs, such as the literacy efforts he put in place, without also endorsing his authoritarianism. Before leaving the banquet for the CNN event, the senator seemed to brush off his past comments and current criticism of them. “I know you’re hearing a lot on TV that ‘Bernie can’t win,’” he said. “Don’t believe everything you hear on TV.”
As the Sanders lead grows, party insiders expect such arguments to get more intense. One Democratic National Committee official said that Tuesday’s debate will likely be the fiercest as every contender knows that “this is the primary that has made kings and queens.”
No one, however, was willing to break with the time-honored rules of Southern decorum. At the dinner, most candidates were polite, and the sharpest barbs were reserved for President Trump and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“Tonight was just a warmup act for what to expect at the most consequential debate of this process,” Antjuan Seawright told RCP as the crowd filtered out of the banquet hall. The South Carolina strategist added, “They know what South Carolina means for the temperature of this country.”