COLUMBIA — With a month and a half until South Carolina's Democratic primary, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign is sharpening its critiques of former vice president Joe Biden's record on issues that affect black voters — and Biden supporters are hitting back.
The latest skirmish kicked off when Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and top Sanders surrogate, published an op-ed in The State newspaper arguing Biden "has repeatedly betrayed black voters."
A response piece from former Richland County councilwoman Bernice Scott called Turner's claims "flat-out wrong."
"We already know his character, his heart and his record," Scott said of Biden. "You can’t try to make us believe something that runs counter to our own experiences with Joe Biden."
The heated back-and-forth comes at a pivotal time in the race, with just weeks remaining for Biden's challengers to cut into his formidable lead among the crucial bloc of African American voters before the Feb. 29 primary.
While the national narrative in recent days has centered around Sanders' escalating feuds with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in South Carolina, Sanders has continued to train his focus on Biden, who has led in every poll of Democrats in the state in large part to strong support from black voters.
Biden and Sanders are expected to be in South Carolina together Monday for the annual Martin Luther King Day at the Dome event in Columbia, a day that will offer both candidates an opportunity to court what is expected to be a large crowd of mostly black voters.
The race also has recently been shaken up by the departure of the race's two most viable African American candidates, U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is still running but has struggled to make much noise after his late entry into the race.
While neither Harris nor Booker were able to gain enough traction to last, both spent significant time and resources on outreach to South Carolina's majority black Democratic electorate, and their exits could create an opening for other candidates to pick up more support.
Scott, for example, originally backed Harris before throwing her support — and the support of her "Reckoning Crew" of black community activists in lower Richland County — behind Biden.
Turner's op-ed, which drew some national attention, took Biden to task for several actions during his 36-year tenure in the U.S. Senate, including opposing mandatory busing for school integration, overseeing the Anita Hill hearings during Clarence Thomas' confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court and working with the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond to pass "tough on crime" legislation.
Scott countered by touting other efforts in Biden's career, from strengthening the Voting Rights Act to pushing for more resources to prosecute hate crimes. Like many Biden supporters in South Carolina, Scott also praised Biden for his role as President Barack Obama's running mate.
"It was one of the first occasions when people who look like me were able to see a white man standing proudly and loyally behind a black man," Scott wrote. "And I can tell you this: South Carolina voters will never forget that."
Other Biden allies, including state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, shrugged off Turner's op-ed as a desperation play that would make little difference.
"With all due respect to Sen. Turner, we have enough people from Ohio weighing in on the South Carolina primary," said Kimpson, D-Charleston. "She does not have her finger on the pulse of the voters of South Carolina, as reflected in (Biden's) overwhelming support in the African American community."
Kimpson noted that other candidates have come after Biden before on similar grounds — most memorably, Harris criticized Biden for his busing stance in the first debate — without making much of a dent.
State Rep. Terry Alexander, a longtime Sanders supporter, said he believes Biden's S.C. support may still be more tenuous than some think and the Sanders campaign has an obligation to highlight the contrast between them. He rejected Scott's argument that doing so is divisive.
"Is it infighting or is it just showing the differences?" said Alexander, D-Florence, a longtime Sanders supporter. "Why is it you can read all these articles about the Democratic establishment cutting Bernie Sanders down, but then when he goes after those who are running, it's a bad thing?"
Many candidates other than Biden have noted that previous S.C. primary races have shifted towards the end, citing Obama's come-from-behind victory against Hillary Clinton in South Carolina in 2008 as a prime example.
Those narratives often neglect to mention Obama actually took the lead against Clinton in South Carolina polls a month before that primary — suggesting Biden's challengers may actually be running out of time to cut into the front-runner's advantage.