Poll suggests he’s a frontrunner, but how will a Joe Biden candidacy play in SC?

Former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to announce he’s running for president next week, capping months of deliberation and adding to a crowded 18-person Democratic field.

The 76-year-old would enter the race with a strong advantage, but he likely will face questions about his age and more moderate record in a party that has become more progressive and has placed greater emphasis on gender and racial diversity.

Biden, too, has struggled to respond to recent accusations that he touched women inappropriately, and has faced criticism about his handling of the 1991 hearings into Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

The former Delaware U.S. senator has since apologized for his role in the hearing. But in a state were women accounted for two-thirds of voters in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary — and with six women in the 2020 field — the allegations could prove harmful.

Presidential hopefuls, including some of the women candidates, are already making some of the complaints about Biden an issue in the era of #MeToo.

Several Democratic presidential candidates have weighed in on the allegations. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar, say they have no reason to doubt the allegations, which they say Biden will need to properly address, should he enter the race.

Also weighing in, former Texas congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke earlier this month said the women accusing Biden of uncomfortable touching “must be heard.”

Time, though, will tell how S.C. Democratic voters will respond.

Florence attorney and former S.C. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Marguerite Willis, who supports Harris, had little to say about Biden’s expected entry into the race and criticisms of the way he interacts with women.

“He’s going to have to answer (those questions),” said Willis, who, inspired by the #MeToo movement, was outspoken on the campaign trail about women’s issues.

Cherie Mabrey, former president of the S.C. Democratic Women’s Council, of Rock Hill said she’s excited for Biden to enter the race.

“I’ve been hugged and kissed by Joe Biden, and it’s not a terrible experience,” she said. “I’ve been hugged by (other) politicians and felt like I needed a shower afterward. That’s not Joe.”

Mabrey served as deputy campaign manager for Archie Parnell, a Sumter Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, in the 2018 general election. Parnell was asked to step down by top South Carolina Democrats before the June primary, after it was revealed he had beat his then-wife in 1973 before their divorce.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big impact,” Mabrey said of Biden’s accusers. “The people in social media that make a big deal … it’s a small group, I feel.”

Gibbs Knotts, a College of Charleston professor with a book about the S.C. primary coming soon, said Biden’s close contacts in the state and his appeal to blue-collar workers will work to his advantage in next year’s primary.

“Joe Biden is Mr. Democrat. He’s served in a lot of different capacities and was a vice president for a popular, first-ever African American president” who is beloved by South Carolina Democrats, Knotts said.

Biden frequently vacations on Kiawah Island and on Tuesday delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, who served South Carolina as governor and U.S. senator. Biden also spoke at the funeral of the late long-time S.C. Republican senator and one-time segregationist Strom Thurmond.

Those types of connections help Biden stand out as a stabilizing, unifying figure in a hyper-partisan political climate, said Columbia Democrat and former state Rep. James Smith, a Biden supporter.

But in addition to a female candidates, Biden also would face several candidates of color, including Harris and New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker. The two African Americans have built a sizable base of support in the first-in-the-South-primary state with a large black population.

“Is he going to be able to connect with African American voters given we have to high-quality African Americans in the field already?” Knotts said.

The answer is yes, according to state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, who says Biden maintains strength with black voters.

“I’m more concerned about record than skin color, and his record bodes well,” Kimpson said.

Biden has been outspoken about the rise of white nationalism during President Donald Trump’s presidency and a vocal critic of the administration’s handling of immigration issues.

Biden also brings traits that would clearly set him apart from others in the 2020 field, Kimpson added.

“The electorate, in my view, is trending toward a candidate of maturity, statesmanship and depth of policy,” Kimpson said. “I can see him being successful in taking on the current president, interweaving substance with the rare ability to communicate that substance to everyday, working-class people. In my view, that is a skill that is rare and not common in the current field.”

Biden’s challenge, he said, will be to resist the temptation to “follow the crowd,” embracing more progressive “ideas from New York” that, while popular in South Carolina, renders him unelectable in battleground states.

“Don’t expect him to be in an African American church and start speaking in a southern voice and roll out a platform of Medicare For All, because that’s what people want to hear,” Kimpson said. “He has to stay true to who he is.”

The Associated Press contributed.

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.