COLUMBIA — If he makes it back to the White House, Joe Biden says he wants to restore "the dignity of work," boost the middle class, provide more affordable health insurance, expand educational opportunities and even complete his efforts as vice president to find a cure for cancer.

But before Democrats get ahead of themselves, Biden warned a crowd of around 700 in a sweltering Columbia gymnasium Saturday, the 2020 presidential race presents an all-important test.

"Above all else," Biden said at Hyatt Park Community Center, "we must defeat Donald Trump."

In the first visit to South Carolina of Biden's nascent 2020 presidential campaign, the former vice president set his sights squarely on the Republican incumbent, describing the race as an opportunity for Americans to "choose hope over fear, unity over division, truth over lies, and science over fiction."

And he repeatedly emphasized his friendship with former President Barack Obama, describing him as "one of the best presidents we've ever had" and reminding voters of his connection to a politician who remains overwhelmingly popular among South Carolina Democrats.

The focus on Trump played into what many Democratic voters in the critical early-voting primary state South Carolina cite as their top priority heading into next year's election.

While many at Biden's rally said they were still looking at some of the 20 other candidates in the race, they repeatedly said beating Trump is their foremost goal — and they viewed Biden as uniquely positioned to get it done.

"I have a lot of issues I care about, but I know that in order for the Democrats to have a chance somebody has to actually be able to win the presidential race," said Jessica Elmore, 33. "So I was happy to see that Joe Biden actually entered the race because I think he has the best chance of winning."

In a brief interview with The Post and Courier before the rally, Biden said South Carolina will be a critically important state for his chances of winning the Democratic nomination, particularly since black voters make up a majority of the primary electorate here.

"When Barack and I worked together, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to change the systemic racism that exists and continue to work on that," Biden said. "So I think the African-American community nationwide knows who I am. I’m not saying the others aren’t qualified, I’m just saying I’ve been there."

He cast the 2020 election as a moral choice, saying the next president will need to "restore America's soul," and he argued his extensive record from decades in public life will distinguish him in a hyper-crowded Democratic primary field.

Speaking before her husband, Jill Biden noted that they recently visited Charleston so he could deliver a eulogy at the funeral of longtime U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings and they often have vacationed on Kiawah Island.

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"Joe and I love South Carolina," Jill Biden said. "South Carolina is a part of us."

The Bidens were later set to attend a fundraiser at the home of state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, who was a prominent Obama supporter in 2008 and is now backing Biden in the 2020 primary.

Unlike some less well-known candidates who have crisscrossed the state introducing themselves to voters, Biden limited his first South Carolina campaign trip to the capital city.

But he assured Democrats across the state that they will have plenty of opportunities to hear from him before the February 2020 "First in the South" primary.

"You're going to be seeing a lot of me," Biden said.

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.

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