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Former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris visited with potential voters in South Carolina this weekend. Gavin McIntyre/Staff and John Carlos/Special to The Post and Courier

A day after former Vice President Joe Biden said he was sorry in Sumter for his statements about working well with segregationist senators, his main 2020 Democratic presidential foil on the issue, California Sen. Kamala Harris, said she accepted his apology.

"He says he's sorry, I'm going to take him at his word," she told reporters Sunday in Hartsville, 10 days after taking Biden to task over the statement during the Democratic presidential debate in Miami.

But Harris says Biden is still wrong about his opposition to government-enforced school desegregation busing, and he can't change history.

"He’s right to recognize the impact of his words, and I applaud him for doing that, having the courage to do that," Harris said. "There’s still quite a disagreement between he and I."

Biden said Sunday that he purposely chose to apologize after the debate to a predominately African-American crowd in South Carolina despite having chances to say he was sorry during a visit to Iowa over July Fourth and a lengthy interview that aired Friday on CNN.

"This is about the future, it’s not about the past, and I’m proud of my past. Have I made mistakes? Yes. Have we learned from them? Yes,” Biden told reporters Sunday in Charleston. “The fact of the matter is that’s why I chose here in South Carolina, and chose an audience that in fact would be the most likely to be offended by it.”

Sunday church

Harris and Biden each spoke after attending Sunday services at predominantly black churches before heading to campaign events.

Their Sunday visit to the early-voting state is part of a post-debate tour where Harris scored points off Biden over his segregationist comment.

Biden is trying to hold on to his lead in the race after a shaky debate response raised doubts about his ability to fight Republican President Donald Trump who is mocking him as "sleepy." Harris is looking to capitalize from her recent gains in the polls nationally that have her as a second choice behind Biden.

She won over some voters.

Kathi McManus, who attended Harris' stop at a Hartsville church, said she's still deciding between Harris, Biden and author Marianne Williamson but she liked Harris' attention to reducing the maternal mortality rate among black women during her speech Sunday and her performance in the debate: "She was very respectful. She said the truth. I appreciate that."

Rosalee Beasley of Hartsville said she chose Harris as her candidate after meeting the senator on Sunday.

"I just like the way she addressed the issues and her sincerity," said Beasley, 78. "It's time for one of us to be in the White House. It's time for a female president. I think she will be the one."

S.C. voters said Sunday they accepted Biden's apology.

"He did a good job working with people. That's the only way we're going to get things done," said Modestine Samuel, a Florence math teacher who is choosing between Biden and Harris. " I'm glad he did. That's what he'll have to do if he's president. If she's president, she'll have to work with people."

But some voters still had questions about the race's front-runner.

"To thine own self be true. It's going to be up to him to follow through on what he's been saying," said James Edwards, an 86-year-old trustee at Charleston's Morris Brown AME Church where Biden spoke.

Martha Johnson attended the S.C. Democratic Party Convention last month with hopes of having a moment of clarity about who she wanted to support. It never came. Johnson, a Charleston voting precinct leader, is drawn to the Harris, Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigeig.

“I want a woman in the White House,” she said. “But everybody loves Joe so I wanted to come out and hear from him directly. .... He’s Joe. He rambles. He meanders. I wish he could just get to the point and energize black voters, and if he can do that I’m in."

Past vs. Future

Criticisms of Biden's past views will not win over S.C. voters, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson said. Without naming Harris directly, Kimpson told the crowd gathered at a Charleston town hall he hosted for Biden that the 2020 race did not have to be an effort to "save a failing campaign” by distracting the media with issues from 50 years ago.

"I have very little particular use for that kind of analysis," said the Charleston Democrat who has not endorsed a 2020 presidential candidate. "History is important but this election is about the future of South Carolina."

Biden received no questions about the segregationists or his opposition to busing at Sunday's town hall. Instead, he tackled issues ranging from health care to gun control.

Felicia Sanders, a survivor of the 2015 Charleston Emanuel AME Church shooting, received applause when she asked Biden how he would address mental health care in America, saying she has struggled with PTSD since the shooting.

Biden walked over to her and hugged her. He then launched into why keeping the Affordable Care Act helps Sanders because it puts mental health care on equal footing with treating a physical medical condition. 

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Still Harris continued to keep pressure on Biden, who has led all four S.C. 2020 Democratic presidential primary polls conducted since February by The Post and Courier and Change Research. Harris had been in third in South Carolina until she and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were passed in a pre-debate June poll by Warren and Buttigieg.

Harris disagreed with Biden's assertion Saturday that he should win support from South Carolina's African-American Democrats, who make up 60 percent of primary voters, because he was the vice president to the country's first black president, Barack Obama.

"I think when it comes time to pull the lever and people to actually vote in this presidential election they're going to make their decisions based not just on who we're associated with but they're going to make their decisions on the work we've done and our plan for the future of America," she said.

Biden chimed back that he is about the future: "I am ready to debate health care and Obamacare and whether that's the way to go. I'm ready to debate education, climate change. That's what I want to debate."

'God forgave Jesus'

Earlier in Charleston, Biden stood in front of the historic sanctuary at Morris Brown AME Church and reminded parishioners it was not his first time visiting them. He then spoke of the congregation’s sister church, Mother Emanuel AME Church, which he visited four years ago after a white supremacist gunned down nine black parishioners.

“When Barack stood and sang ‘Amazing Grace,’ it was one of the most moving times,” Biden said.

Biden talked about resolve and courage while weaving in a few policy positions.

“Imagine what it would have been through those dark dark days, I mean this sincerely, without the black church. Imagine. Imagine,” Biden said to applause. 

Rev. Thomas Nesbitt thanked Biden for his apology about working with segregationist senators.

“For even dear God forgave Jesus,” Nesbitt said to “amens” from parishioners.

Harris' ninth visit to South Carolina is a two-day swing through the Pee Dee, a mostly rural region in the state's northeast corner that has been getting less attention from 2020 candidates.

In Darlington County, Harris talked about the fight still facing women and minorities in the country, including the need for improved health care and equal pay.

"We are a nation founded on noble ideals … those words we spoke in 1776 that we are all equal and should be treated that way… we are also clear eyed," Harris told a gathering at Jerusalem Baptist Church in Hartsville. "We’ve not yet reached those ideas but we fight to get there."

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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