NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — As Jill Biden looked into the faces of the several dozen people gathered before her in the hall of Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church, she talked about coming to this state in 2015 a few weeks after Beau Biden, the elder of Joe Biden’s two sons, died of brain cancer.
“We’ve found respite on your shores,” she said. “When we lost our son Beau, the first place we went … was the low country.”
Biden was here two weeks before the South Carolina primary to maintain a presence in the state while her husband — his hopes for the presidency on the ropes — stumped in Nevada ahead of the caucuses there this coming Saturday.
If Joe Biden’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination are to be resurrected, he’ll have to do very well in South Carolina on Feb. 29, and even that may not be enough. But the Palmetto State has been a place of rejuvenation before for the Biden family.
The Bidens spent some time on Kiawah Island in June 2015, after Beau’s death. “Everything was darkened by the shadow of his death,” Jill Biden wrote in her 2019 memoir. “So we gathered up the kids and grandkids and headed to the beach, hoping for some healing from the clean salt air.”
Joe Biden has told a story — in his own book on losing Beau — about weeping by himself on the beach during this trip.
But even then the Bidens could not escape the touch of tragedy. Just before they arrived, a white supremacist shot and killed nine Bible study attendees at one of Charleston’s most historic black churches, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Biden, then the vice president, attended the memorial service for the church’s pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
Biden and Pinckney had met before, and when Biden toured the church he saw a photo of himself with Pinckney, who was 41 years old when he was slain, five years younger than Beau Biden. Joe Biden wrote in his book about attending Sunday services at the church a few days after Pinckney’s memorial service. He needed, he wrote, to be with those who were mourning even as he mourned.
It is that sense of enduring through suffering and tragedy that defines Biden now, who lost his first wife, Neilia, and their 1-year old daughter, Naomi, in a car accident in 1972. Beau and his younger brother, Hunter, were injured in that crash and survived. But now Hunter’s own personal problems and questionable business decisions have become a political liability to his father.
And it is all of this that connects Biden in a real way to that same community that suffered so profoundly in the wake of the Emanuel AME massacre: the African-American community. In this state, black voters make up about 60 percent of the Democratic primary.
There was a photo of Biden and Pinckney on the wall of Emanuel AME because Biden has been coming to South Carolina for decades. He’s run for president twice before and has campaigned for Democrats in congressional elections year after year.
At Jill Biden’s event, state Sen. David Mack, who has represented part of North Charleston for more than 20 years, told the audience that “what you see and what you hear is real.”
“I’ve known the Bidens from before Vice President Biden was Vice President Biden. He’s come to our home several times,” Mack said. And he told the audience that his mother had passed away a few weeks ago, and the Biden family had sent flowers in her honor.
In the crowd were the kind of people who make a real difference in the local community, like Hilda Gadsden, the president of the Woman’s Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina.
Gadsden told Yahoo News in an interview that Biden “knows all of the players.”
“We don’t need to be looking for someone going in fresh,” she said. “It’s crucial right now that we have someone who understands what is going on. And as a senior statesman and the character he has, he will be an awesome president.”
“Vice President Biden is truly respected,” she said. “We just have to get out there and get the word out.”
And Gadsden will do that. She said she usually drives people who live at a nearby retirement home to the polls to vote in every election. Her husband pastors a church in North Charleston where around election time they ask members to bring at least one friend or family member to church who is not registered to vote so they can add them to the rolls.
There was a palpable sense of relief among Jill Biden aides at the event Monday that they had escaped the cold and inhospitable political climates of Iowa and New Hampshire and had finally arrived in a warmer, friendlier climate.
“We’re just so excited to be here, a place that we know and love, [with] people who are here that we know and love,” Jill Biden said
If Biden can finish strong in Nevada and then win South Carolina, there may be hope for his candidacy after disappointing finishes so far: fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire.
The Biden campaign will have to figure out a balance between pushing hard to win South Carolina convincingly without creating expectations that are too high for him that could create a negative news cycle if he wins but only by a few points, or comes in second.
At Jill Biden’s second event on Monday, a house party in Mount Pleasant, a 15-year-old field organizer named Amari President warmed up the crowd of 100 people or so gathered in a living room.
“We don’t have to just win here in South Carolina,” President said. “We have to” — and he paused so the audience could join him in saying the last two words together — “win big.”
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