(CNN)Former Vice President Joe Biden’s blowout South Carolina win reshaped the Democratic presidential campaign and positions him as the surging moderate alternative to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in a 48-hour sprint to Super Tuesday.
And it might just have helped him — after 50 years of thwarted presidential promise and personal tragedy — to strike an emotional register that steadies a meandering campaign and finally exemplifies his core argument: He’s the best Democrat to take on President Donald Trump.
Biden’s resilience cemented the core ideological struggle at the center of this year’s Democratic primary. After four contests, Sanders is rising on a coalition of young, liberal voters, energized by rising support among Hispanics. Biden now vaults to the top of a more racially diverse, older and moderate wing of the party, after struggling to power up a campaign that looked stronger in theory than practice.
The issue for Democratic leaders is that, to beat Trump, both wings of the divided party must unite and there is little sign that any candidate can appeal to both sides at the same time. That raises the possibility of an extended Democratic delegate duel that splits the party on race, ideology and age — and preserves the chance of a contested convention in July.
Biden has been running for president on-and-off for 33 years, but never celebrated a winning night until Saturday’s thumping 30-point victory in a primary candidates have used in previous cycles to launch themselves towards the nomination.
In his victory speech, perhaps for the first time, he effectively conflated the agonies of his own life — after burying a young wife and two children, suffering a life-threatening brain aneurysm and flaming out in two previous White House campaigns — with a party and a nation he believes have been battered by a mendacious president.
“For all those of you who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind — this is your campaign,” Biden declared.
“We’re decent. We’re brave, we’re resilient people. We can believe again. We’re better than this, we’re better than this president. So, get up, take back our country. This is the United States of America.”
Biden’s victory, half a lifetime in arriving, emphatically answered a question raised by poor showings in the early states: would his firewall with African American voters survive?
It did. And now the party must endure what could be an elongated battle for the future of the party fought by two septuagenarians.
Sanders ruefully conceded defeat, but with a favorable slate of races looming on Tuesday he appears well placed to advance his “revolution” that threatens to overtake the Democratic Party.
“You can’t win them all,” Sanders said, of the South Carolina result, after heading to Virginia, a Super Tuesday state.
“There are a lot of states in this country, nobody wins them all.”
On Super Tuesday, Sanders will be favored in some of the biggest prizes, in populist states like California and Texas, and is tipped to perform well in liberal Massachusetts and Minnesota — home to two of the race’s remaining candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, respectively.
Biden, who constantly touts his role as Barack Obama’s vice president, will hope to vault from a win in South Carolina into other states where black voters play a key role, including North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas.
But time is short for the 77-year-old former Delaware senator to capitalize on post-South Carolina momentum. He is sure to get a big fundraising boost — but will struggle to place advertising before 14 states and one territory vote on Tuesday.
And there remain questions about his capacity to put together a firing-on-all-cylinders campaign and fundraising infrastructure to compete with Sanders nationwide, small donor political movement.
Sanders still looks favored to emerge from Super Tuesday with a significant lead in delegates, which could be diffi