ST. LOUIS — Sun glinting off his aviator shades and a pearly white smile beaming, former vice president Joe Biden was high on his comeback as he wound his way to the stage at a downtown plaza where supporters cheered under the iconic Gateway Arch.
“What a difference a week makes,” he told the boisterous crowd of more than 1,500 people on Saturday. “This time last week, I was in South Carolina. They hadn’t finished voting and the press and the pundits had declared Biden’s campaign is dead. But South Carolina had something to say about that.”
Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are in a neck-and-neck, two-man contest for the Democratic presidential nomination heading into another big election Tuesday this week, even as Biden has taken the lead in national polls. But Biden’s slew of Super Tuesday victories last week after his big South Carolina win has rejuvenated him and his supporters, allowing him to expand his advertising and ambition as he shifts his message. Now Biden is billing himself as the unlikely underdog, as he attempts to strike at the core of Sanders’ “electability” pitch.
Pumped-up audiences in Missouri and Mississippi, which are among six states with primary contests this Tuesday, greeted Biden over the weekend with an electricity missing in Iowa and New Hampshire as his campaign faltered. There was a warm appreciation for his folksy, if at times awkward, persona as he slimmed down his stump speech and emphasized his fighting spirit.
“To all those who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind, let me say to you — this is your campaign,” Biden said in St. Louis.
The money has come pouring in for Biden since his Super Tuesday wins — more than $22 million raised in five days, according to his campaign — as have the endorsements from his one-time rivals. The latest on Sunday was from California Senator Kamala Harris, who abandoned her own presidential bid in December and on Sunday tweeted a video pledging to do whatever possible to get him elected.
“I believe in Joe,” she said. “One of the things that we need right now is a leader who really does care about the people and who can therefore unify the people.”
The coveted endorsement still pending is that of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who dropped out of the race on Thursday. Sanders, who has sharpened his attacks on Biden over his track record, took to the airwaves Sunday to make the case to Warren and her supporters that he was the candidate most suited to take up the progressive mantle and push forward her ideas.
Sanders campaigned Sunday in Michigan, which has the most delegates at stake Tuesday. He canceled a Friday speech in Mississippi to head to Michigan over the weekend as analysts said a loss there would be a major blow to his hopes of winning the nomination.
But supporters at Biden’s rallies said they have examined the winnowed field and are returning to the familiar. They’re opting for his message of restoration over Sanders’ calls for revolution, his calm and steady demeanor over the drumbeat of excitement generated by Sanders, who they said has motivated more young people to get involved in politics but not enough to vote.
“Some of us flirted with other people, but now we’ve come back home," said Sabrina Tyuse, 64, a professor at St. Louis University. She had backed Harris until she dropped out, and briefly weighed voting for Warren and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg before settling on Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.
After Klobuchar left the race and endorsed Biden last week, Tyuse decided to follow the lead of most voters in South Carolina. “I’m ridin’ with Biden," Tyuse said.
She and others said they found Biden down-to-earth and humble, with the air of coolness that reminded some of the memes and photographs of him together with Obama. Justin Idleburg, 40, a racial equity consultant, had planned to vote for former housing secretary Julián Castro and considered Bloomberg. But he said when the field narrowed to Biden or Sanders, Biden was the obvious choice, he said.
“People say he has no energy, but I don’t care if has no energy as long as he can get the job done,” Idleburg said.
In St. Louis, Biden made a lively entrance, and then awkwardly hung back as there seemed to be confusion about who would take the stage next. Another surrogate then went on for so long one man in the crowd yelled, “You can feel the excitement dropping."
When he speaks on the campaign trail, Biden’s timing still is sometimes off. He tends to look befuddled at least once at every event. He hasn’t stopped making minor blunders. At an energetic victory party in Dallas on Super Tuesday, he introduced his wife as his sister and his sister as his wife as the two women stood behind him on either side. “They switched on me,” he quickly corrected himself with a smile.
Yet these days, the voters don’t seem to mind. The chants of “We want Joe” last longer. The rallying cries have become louder.
“I don’t know if you know it, but ‘Fightin Joe Biden’ is in town today,“ Lewis Reed, president of the St. Louis’ Board of Aldermen said at the rally Saturday as people waved signs with the words ”Joe-mentum” and “Hold the house, Flip the Senate.”
Biden ended the weekend with a raucous rally at Mississippi’s Tougaloo College, where the Southern Komfort Brass Band warmed up a crowd of about 1,300, and people roared when actress Vivica A. Fox and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick ticked off Biden’s signature accomplishments, including efforts to combat policy brutality and pass the Affordable Care Act. Patrick, who dropped out of the race after the New Hampshire primary, endorsed Biden on Friday.
Money couldn’t buy Bloomberg love, and large ground game operations weren’t enough to help Warren and other candidates supplant the close connection and trust that Biden has built with older Black voters and Latino state and congressional leaders during his decades as an elected official. Some lawmakers point to Biden’s efforts campaigning for them in tough races when no one else would. Black voters at his rallies in Missouri and Mississippi were quick to cite Biden’s loyalty to Obama.
“He had Obama’s back, now we got his back,” said Michelle Coleman, 59, a retired compliance officer with the American Cross who watched Biden speak in St. Louis.
Many like Karen Pierre, 67, a retired US Army sergeant and committeewoman for the Normandy Township in St. Louis County, never doubted him. "I was like, ‘See! You didn’t have any faith,’” she said of Biden’s Super Tuesday victories, wagging a finger and laughing at friends who did doubt.
The livelier crowds have been a foil to the handful of protesters who have continued to infiltrate Biden’s events with disparate causes, leading to brief but distracting interruptions. In Kansas City, where more than 2,000 people gathered for a Get Out the Vote event Saturday, four protesters asking about Biden’s affordable housing plan, shouted, “Where will we live?”
“This isn’t a Trump rally,” he quipped before taking on a sense of urgency. “If you’ll meet with me after this, I’ll explain to you my entire housing plan and you’ll be square.”
Biden opted for teleprompters over rambling, off-the-cuff remarks and kept his speeches short over the weekend. And the next phase of his campaign will center on reaching a critical voter bloc that he largely ceded to Sanders: Latinos.
“The number one issue was money,” California Representative Tony Cardenas said, arguing Biden’s message would resonate more strongly with Latinos than that of Sanders once his message gets out.
As Biden ended his rousing speech in Mississippi Sunday, he again echoed his top rival as he told the audience he really did believe in a movement, although he said his was “powered by the backbone of the Democratic Party to defeat Donald Trump and restore the soul of the nation.”
“Let me say this,” he said. “This is your campaign.”