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South Carolina picked Joe Biden. Will it be enough to shake up the 2020 race?

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Election 2020 Joe Biden (copy)

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden smiles while being introduced at a campaign event at Saint Augustine's University in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. Gerry Broome/AP

Four months from now, when Democrats meet at their national convention to choose their presidential nominee, they could look back and say South Carolina was where Joe Biden's rise began, or they could call it something else: A total fluke.

With hours to go before the race for the White House goes national on Super Tuesday, the former vice president has a finite window of time to maximize his massive victory in the Palmetto State, where he not only beat Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders but he trounced him by a huge 30-point margin.

During the Sunday political morning shows, Biden tried to quickly shed his underdog status in the race in multiple interviews.

On CNN, he announced his campaign had raised $5 million online within 24 hours of winning in South Carolina. On NBC, he projected the 2020 race is effectively a two-man contest between him and Sanders.

"People are not looking for revolution, they're looking for results," Biden told Chuck Todd on NBC's "Meet the Press."

But in a twist, Biden also wasn't quite ready to call himself a front-runner just days after he had proclaimed, "South Carolina chooses presidents."

Now Biden faces the greatest challenge of his candidacy yet: Proving that his win in South Carolina isn't a political red herring but is instead a preview of a political ascent in progress.

And for the candidates that lost in the Palmetto State, another question awaits: Should I stay, or should I go?

A second wind

On the path to the White House, South Carolina plays a paramount role in the nominating process. 

Not only is it the first Southern state to cast a ballot in the contest, it is also the first state where African Americans comprise more than 60 percent of Democratic primary voters.

For candidates who fail to garner a diverse coalition of support, South Carolina could spell the beginning of the end. 

"The South has demonstrated early that it will have something to say about this process," said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist who advised Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns in the state.

In 2008, this was where Barack Obama clinched the victory he needed after winning in Iowa and losing in New Hampshire. In 2016, South Carolina was where Hillary Clinton saw her campaign turn around when the state overwhelmingly rejected Sanders and his calls for political revolution.

Black voters are vital to any winning Democratic coalition, which only amplifies the significance of South Carolina's pick ahead of Super Tuesday, when voters in 14 states head to the polls.

That's good news for Biden as he enters the Super Tuesday contest, where half of the contests are taking place in Southern states. Those states are North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

He also goes into the next phase of the race with the most popular votes out of the first four contests and now trails Sanders in the overall delegate count by a 56-54 margin, according to media tabulations.

Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in North Carolina — one of the Super Tuesday states — said the short timeframe between Biden's South Carolina surge and Super Tuesday showing brings opportunity and obstacles.

"Many of these Southern states on Super Tuesday are going to have substantial black voter participation and that could be a benefit to Biden, but this short break between the contests could also mean that he may not have enough time to galvanize those voters," Bitzer said. 

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There are organizational challenges ahead, too.

According to Advertising Analytics, Sanders has spent $15.5 million in Super Tuesday states compared to Biden's $600,000.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who endorsed Biden in the days leading up to South Carolina's 2020 contest, said Biden's campaign will need to "do some retooling" if Biden wants to continue competing.

Seawright said presidential campaigns are a marathon, not a sprint, and that Biden is gaining momentum at the right time for voters in other states to take notice.

"Direction is more important than speed," Seawright said, predicting the contest is about to reset and recalibrate.

It could also be a moment of reckoning for the race's remaining candidates.

The beginning of the end

For former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, his fourth-place finish here exposed a trouble spot to what has otherwise been a meteoric political rise.

"We knew South Carolina was going to be a challenging state," Buttigieg said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

He added, "That bar of earning the trust of voters of color right now, that bar is high for a reason especially when you're talking about black voters in the South."

Buttigieg had promised to continue his White House bid through the Super Tuesday contests at least, but on Sunday night announced his plans to drop out of the race.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who came in fifth-place in the state, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who finished sixth, could be in the midst of similar soul-searching after being rejected in the Southern stage. 

Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the College of Charleston who co-wrote a book about the history of South Carolina's presidential primaries, said what happens in South Carolina is often replicated in other states with high percentages of African American voters.

"If Bernie Sanders is the front-runner but he’s not getting that high a percentage of the African American vote, then the person who's going to be his presumed challenger has to be someone who is garnering that support," Knotts said.

"With that logic, there's no way you can justify Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar or Elizabeth Warren being the key challenger to Bernie when they’re getting even less support than Bernie did," he added.

Others weren't waiting for the results of Super Tuesday. Billionaire activist Tom Steyer suspended his campaign hours after the South Carolina race was called on Saturday night.

So all this leads back to Biden's win and what he does with his South Carolina headlines. 

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

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