Columbia, South Carolina (CNN)After a few hymns, two Scripture readings and a rousing gospel song from the choir, Malcolm Kenyatta took the microphone at Reid Chapel AME Church here on a recent Sunday to address more worldly affairs: the state’s fast-approaching Democratic presidential primary.
“If you’ve been paying attention, some people are saying that this election is over, but I think if we just hold on a little bit longer, the folks of South Carolina are going to have something to say,” said Kenyatta, a Pennsylvania state representative who supports Joe Biden.
“When you see millionaires and billionaires that are able to buy your attention, don’t just look at the 30-second ad,” Kenyatta implored, his voice rising though the sanctuary. “Look at 30 years of history.”
Kenyatta’s urgent pleas underscore just how much Biden and his allies are relying on South Carolina and black voters like those at Reid Chapel to revive the former vice president’s faltering campaign following losses in Iowa and New Hampshire — and how much competition he now faces for their support.
Once the Nevada caucuses end on Saturday, the political world’s attention will shift to the Palmetto State, which holds its primary on February 29. The leading Democratic candidates are set to debate Tuesday night in Charleston.
Biden has made South Carolina — and mobilizing the black voters who could make up as much as two-thirds of the electorate here — the centerpiece of his third bid for the presidency. And in the run-up to the early contests, support from African Americans voters helped make Biden the early front-runner among Democrats. But as the primary battle turns to South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states that quickly follow on March 3, his rivals are scrambling to chip away at the central argument of his candidacy: that he’s best equipped to build the diverse coalitions needed to beat President Donald Trump in November.
This week, Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders launched his first South Carolina ad, touting the endorsement of an African American elected official who had previously supported Biden. In the 30-second commercial, Richland County Council member Dahli Myers said she had switched allegiances because she believes Sanders can stir the voter enthusiasm needed to seize the White House in November.
“I want to see the kind of lines around the building that we saw in 2008,” she said, referring to the year Barack Obama won the South Carolina primary and became the nation’s first black president.
California billionaire Tom Steyer also is working to make inroads within the African American community. He has invested heavily in South Carolina, running roughly $20 million in advertising — nearly nine times the spending of his closest competitor in the state’s ad wars, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, according to a tally by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. In addition, Steyer’s wife, Kat Taylor, left her post overseeing a community bank the couple founded in California to relocate to South Carolina and campaign full time on his behalf.
Buttigieg, who has struggled to attract the black voters who make up the base of the Democratic Party, has run commercials featuring the descendants of prominent South Carolinians — Walter Clyburn Reed, the grandson of the highest-ranking African American in the House, Rep. Jim Clyburn; and Abe Jenkins, the grandson of late civil rights activist Esau Jenkins. Both men are working for his campaign.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has a much smaller war chest than many of her rivals, also has worked to build support among African American voters. In recent weeks, she deployed one of her most prominent black supporters, Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, to fire up volunteers and speak to students at Benedict College, a historically black college here in Columbia. Musician John Legend is slated to campaign on her behalf in the state next week.
A new super PAC supporting Amy Klobuchar recently placed nearly $825,000 in ads on airwaves in South Carolina to assist the senator from Minnesota, who has trailed many of her rivals in fundraising.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed eroding support for Biden among African American voters nationally. The former vice president had the backing of 27% of black voters surveyed earlier this month, down from 51% in December. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has overwhelmed his rivals with record-breaking ad spending, had surged to 22%, second place, in the February Quinnipiac poll.
Bloomberg, who has skipped the first four states on the nomination calendar, is not on the ballot in South Carolina.
A poll out Thursday of Democratic likely voters in South Carolina found Biden and Sanders, who had a strong finish in Iowa and won in New Hampshire, battling for top place in the state. But Biden still held a wide advantage among black likely voters: Forty-three percent backed him. Sanders’ black support stood at 20% and Steyer’s at 19%, according to the poll conducted by the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
Clyburn, who has not yet made a public endorsement in the race, recently said he doesn’t know whether Biden can pull off a win. “I think there’s a lot of activity taking place here, and we are going to have a very spirited contest,” Clyburn said recently on CNN.
“South Carolina is extremely fluid,” said Trav Robertson, the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party and a veteran campaign strategist. “The African American community is no longer a monolithic voting bloc.”
Sanders, Robertson said, has extensive infrastructure on the ground, through Our Revolution, an outside group he helped found. And Steyer and his wife, Taylor, are known in the African American business community through their longtime investment in a black-owned bank.
“Older African Americans may be with Vice President Biden,” he said. “The question is whether that’s out of undying support for him and his positions or out of name ID and loyalty to Barack Obama’s vice president.”
Tracy Pickett, a 39-year-old elementary school principal, sits on one side