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Former Vice President Joe Biden gives a speech to the community during a town hall event at the International Longshoremen’s Association Hall during his campaign trip to Charleston on Sunday July 7, 2019. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

ORANGEBURG — A presidential candidate with broad establishment support and strong ties to a popular former president enters the Democratic primary race in South Carolina with a sizable lead, buoyed by years of fame and an air of inevitability.

For Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign, it was all downhill from there.

By the winter of 2007, a young, African American, first-term senator named Barack Obama was gaining ground on an opponent who had assumed that Bill Clinton's enduring approval among black voters would translate into support for herself. 

"Everybody believed that she would win," said Carol Fowler, who chaired the S.C. Democratic Party at the time. "But Obama, from early on, didn't pay any attention to that and built just a monumental organization in South Carolina, and when things started to break Obama's way, his South Carolina people were ready to take advantage of it."

After scoring an upset victory in Iowa, Obama shed any lingering doubts among S.C. voters about his viability. By Election Day, Obama stormed to a massive 29 percent victory in the Palmetto State, outperforming polls even from the days immediately before the primary and paving the way to his eventual nomination.

As the 2020 Democratic race prepares to enter the crucial fall campaign season, it's now former Vice President Joe Biden who is far in front of the pack for South Carolina's pivotal First in the South primary — and determined not to let history repeat itself.

Some supporters of other candidates, like former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, who endorsed U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, cite potential parallels with 2008 as a reason why they believe the race remains wide open despite Biden's commanding lead.

"I think the vice president’s support, a lot like the first lady’s support at the time, is very wide, but it’s not deep," Sellers said. "I think once Sen. Harris is able to prove her electability, which I don’t have much concern that she will, I expect the tide to change with African American voters like it did with Hillary Clinton."

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia Democrat who backed Obama in 2008 and is now supporting Biden, described any comparison between the two races as "ludicrous," highlighting one key difference in particular that many Biden supporters point to: President Donald Trump.

"The dynamic this year, and the reason Joe Biden is doing so well, is pragmatism about winning, about beating Donald Trump," Harpootlian said. "That’s not what ’08 was about. There’s just no similarity between Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton other than them both being frontrunners."

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Kendall Corley, the South Carolina director for Joe Biden's 2020 presidential campaign, works out of the headquarters on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

Kendall Corley worked on Obama's 2008 campaign in South Carolina and watched as Clinton's front-runner status disintegrated — due, in part, many observers believed, to a sense of complacency.

Now, as he leads Biden's burgeoning 2020 operation in South Carolina, Corley is helming a team that he says will prioritize local relationships on the ground and build upon Biden's decades of connections here.

"We're leaving no stone unturned," Corley said in an interview at Biden's Columbia headquarters, as a full house of interns worked away on the phones and staff kept tabs on the rest of the state. "We're not taking anything or anybody for granted."

'I've been there'

The biggest difference between Biden and Clinton, many of the former vice president's allies say, is the extent of his personal ties to South Carolina.

Before launching his campaign, Biden had spoken at more than a dozen public events in South Carolina since 2006, including state Democratic Party dinners, statue unveilings and graduations, in addition to regular vacations in the Lowcountry. He's campaigned for several S.C. Democratic candidates over the years and built warm relationships with a plethora of top Democratic officials in the state that date back decades.

He holds the unique status of having been asked to eulogize at the funerals of both of South Carolina's longtime U.S. senators from opposing sides of the aisle, Republican Strom Thurmond in 2003 and Democrat Fritz Hollings earlier this year. 

In fact, Biden credits Hollings with saving his entire political career when he convinced him to remain in the Senate after his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident shortly after he was elected in 1972.

The two developed a deep friendship, and Hollings introduced Biden to many of the influential S.C. Democrats who are now steadfastly behind his presidential campaign. Trip King, a former longtime Hollings aide, has remained one of Biden's closest confidants and says Biden's appreciation of the state helps to explain his support here.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden participates in singing a hymn during a service at Morris Brown AME Church for a campaign trip Sunday, July 7, 2019, in Charleston. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

"When he was coming down to South Carolina on vacations with his family, he always took the time to chat with people wherever he encountered them, whether on the beach, in a restaurant, in churches or just walking down the street," King said. "He's an affectionate guy and people hold a lot of affection for him, regardless of their politics."

Biden jumped at an invitation to a special edition of the historic Galivants Ferry Stump meeting next month, becoming the first 2020 candidate to accept — in part, organizers believe, because he alone understood the significance of the 143-year-old biennial event. After all, he was already the keynote speaker there once before back in 2006 alongside Hollings.

In an interview with The Post and Courier shortly after he launched his campaign, Biden attributed his work with Obama and visits to the state as part of the reason why he has consistently polled highest among African American voters, who comprise a majority of South Carolina's Democratic electorate.

"I think the African American community nationwide knows who I am," Biden said. "I’m not saying the others aren’t qualified; I’m just saying I’ve been there."

'He really grabs your soul'

Biden's allies and critics alike believe he is benefiting right now from the crowded primary field, standing out as the known commodity among an array of up-and-comers — a situation that could change in the months ahead if struggling candidates run out of steam and Biden's opponents consolidate. 

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Polls have shown that Biden's policy positions, while somewhat more moderate than the most progressive candidates in the field, play a fairly limited role in both support and opposition to him among S.C. voters.

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A sign in Joe Biden's South Carolina campaign headquarters shows how many days left until the state's Democratic presidential primary. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

Instead, the top reasons supporters cited in a Post and Courier-Change Research poll in June were his experience as Obama's vice president and his ability to stand up to Trump. The top reason for opposing him was a desire for a new leadership rather than the old guard.

"We know him because he worked with Obama, but I’m just watching right now to see what’s coming out of his mouth, to see if he’s still for the people," said Lena Nelson, 59, of Pinewood.

At a recent Florence campaign stop for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Shelley Fortin said her daughter has encouraged her to give a "a new generation" of candidates a chance, even though she may be inclined to back Biden. 

But, as an early Obama supporter in 2008, she said the biggest difference she sees between now and then is not the contrast between Biden and Clinton but between the rest of the 2020 field and Obama.

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Natasha Robinson (left) and her mother, Shawntelle Matney, wave signs for former Vice President Joe Biden before his town hall at the International Longshoremen's Association Hall during a Charleston campaign trip on Sunday July 7, 2019. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

"(Booker) has got some of that oratory skill, but there’s just no other Obama and there won’t be," said Fortin, 61.

In the early months of 2019, several top campaigns sought to hire Corley, who is well-regarded in S.C. political circles for his experience in African American voter outreach. But after talking to various candidates, Corley said he determined Biden had the best chance of beating Trump and restoring some semblance of unity.

"It’s his time because we have to get this country back on track," Corley said. "He has worked across the aisle; he knows the players; he knows the political system; he relates to people; he knows the people. So, why not Joe Biden?"

At a small watch party in Orangeburg for the second Democratic debate last month, comments from several other candidates elicited hollers of approval. But by the end, Tyrone Bradley said there is likely nothing that could get him to change his decision to back Biden.

"Joe is just too genuine and too knowledgeable," said Bradley, 50. "He's got the experience, and he grabs your soul when he speaks. He really grabs your soul. You can trust him."

But others who are leaning Biden's way say they're still waiting for him to prove that, at 76 years old, he maintains the tenacity to take on Trump.

"He is just a good man and I do believe he has a strong sense of fairness," said Eliza Reid, 72, a retired technician from North Santee. "Is he strong enough to deliver is the question. I don’t know, because he will be in the fight of his life."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.