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Joe Biden scores a big endorsement as he battles Bernie Sanders in pivotal South Carolina

Former vice president Joe Biden gained the endorsement of Representative James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina.
Former vice president Joe Biden gained the endorsement of Representative James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina.Drew Angerer/Getty

GEORGETOWN, S.C. — Former vice president Joe Biden on Wednesday scored the state’s most coveted endorsement, from powerful Representative Jim Clyburn, but the Democratic primary race here seemed unsettled as it entered the final stretch.

“I promise you this: If you send me out of South Carolina with a victory, there will be no stopping us,” Biden said after receiving the long-awaited public backing of Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black lawmaker in the House Democratic leadership and a revered figure in the state party.

But Biden, who has staked his campaign’s future on a win here, is facing a tough test from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been rising in the polls. The morning after a chaotic presidential debate in which Biden and the other candidates trained their fire on Sanders, most of them spoke at an early Wednesday morning church breakfast in North Charleston before fanning out across the state to begin their final appeals to voters ahead of Saturday’s primary.

Most attendees at the breakfast, hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network civil rights organization, were the older Black voters whom Biden’s campaign has counted on to make the South Carolina primary his campaign’s firewall, but many were not committed to voting for him.

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Several said they did not appreciate being taken for granted as Biden’s firewall, especially after he performed poorly in the first three contests in the Democratic race.

“I don’t like you assuming that because of my ethnicity and my age that you have me in the bag,” said Carol Drew, 70, of Columbia, who is deciding among Biden, Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.

But mostly, voters seemed exhausted by the infighting among Democrats on the debate stage Tuesday night, and tired of fretting about who is the best choice to beat President Trump.

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And although they plan to vote, many people said they don’t expect real answers about who can beat Trump until after next week, when 14 states will vote on Super Tuesday and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg will be on the ballot for the first time.

“I think all will be revealed next Tuesday,” said David Hiller, 71, who waited to see Biden speak at a rally in Georgetown on Wednesday afternoon that drew several hundred mostly older, white people to an ornate social hall near the city’s harbor.

Even though Bloomberg is not on the ballot in South Carolina, he is very much on voters’ minds. Senator Elizabeth Warren, at a campaign stop in Orangeburg on Wednesday, lobbed a zinger at the billionaire who has increasingly become a foil for her candidacy.

“Some billionaires don’t like this,” she said, referring to her wealth tax proposal. “Some of them run for president,” Warren continued, adding they are “discovering it’s a little harder than they thought."

The most recent poll in South Carolina showed Biden leading at 41 percent, with Sanders in second at 23 percent. Biden’s support here has eroded from last fall, when his polling lead was as large as 29 percentage points.

But after arguably his best debate performance so far Tuesday night, Biden got a boost from Clyburn, whose endorsement could resonate in a state Democratic electorate that is about 60 percent Black.

“I know Joe. We know Joe, but most importantly, Joe knows us,” Clyburn said at a news conference with Biden on Wednesday morning. “I can think of no one with the integrity, no one more committed to the fundamental principles that make this country what it is than my good friend, my late wife’s great friend, Joe Biden.”

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Biden said South Carolina “chooses presidents” and noted a big victory in the state’s primary in 2008 “launched my buddy Barack Obama to the White House.”

“And I firmly believe once again on Saturday you hold in your hands in South Carolina the power to choose the next president of the United States and I’m here, heart and soul, with everything I’ve got, to earn the support of the people of South Carolina," he said.

It was unclear on Wednesday whether Clyburn’s choice would sway new voters to Biden’s side.

“So many people’s minds are wide open,” said Paul Kenny, 64, a retired marine biologist from Pawley’s Island who came to see Biden in Georgetown on Wednesday afternoon. He said he is deciding among Biden, Sanders, and Buttigieg.

Others, like Carol Lorson, are firmly with Biden and believe he can make a comeback on Saturday.

“You have to hang in and look at the big picture and I feel like South Carolina will take him,” said Lorson, of Georgetown.

Perhaps in a sign of the campaign’s boosted confidence, Biden’s staff on Wednesday announced a new six-figure advertising buy in Super Tuesday states.

But Sanders sought to capitalize on the momentum from his big win in the Nevada caucuses and his new front-runner status. He held two rallies on Wednesday and added extra stops later this week in other parts of the state.

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At a rally in North Charleston, Sanders supporters said they believe he is being taken more seriously than in the 2016 race, when he lost badly here to Hillary Clinton. The event drew a racially diverse crowd of several hundred people, old and young.

Stephen Padgett, 50, of Summerville, said it is unusual for him to support a progressive candidate like Sanders in a state that is largely Republican. But he has found company in the many newcomers who have moved to the state in recent years, and he let his 12-year-old son skip school to come with him to the rally.

“I’m not so worried about my future, but them and their future is why I’ve gotten politically active lately,” he said, referring to his children.

At this stage of the race, candidates are also relying heavily on surrogates to join them on the trail. Warren appeared with musician John Legend, who performed at her event at South Carolina State University, a public historically Black university.

Sanders also has a number of surrogates on the trail including actors Ray Fisher and Kendrick Sampson. Last week former secretary of state John Kerry stumped for Biden.

If anything was clear on Wednesday, it was that voters making their final decisions do not fall into clean-cut ideological categories.

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Mel Butts, 70, of Summerville, said he likes Sanders’ government-backed universal health care proposal, but was thinking of voting for Biden, who opposes such a program. Dwayne Pierce, 53, a chef from Summerville, was also choosing between Biden and Sanders, candidates at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

Mostly, though, Pierce, like many voters, said he was frustrated. So often politicians, especially national ones, are absent until they need a vote, he said.

“You can wear all the suits that you want, sit on the podium, but what are you doing to do when all these cameras leave?” he said.

Pierce said ultimately he was looking for someone authentic, who would follow through on promises and not forget people here, after voting is over.

“Sometimes winning South Carolina is not about South Carolina,” he said. “You don’t care about South Carolina, you just want to show other people you won.”


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.