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Democrats Campaign At South Carolina Fish Fry


Nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates are campaigning in South Carolina this weekend. How do they have the room? It's intended to be a feel-good weekend - fundraising, glad-handing, fried fish served at an annual fish fry. But former Vice President Joe Biden's comments this week about his ability to work with Southern segregationist senators during his time in the Senate shifted the tone of what has been, so far, a relatively friendly primary.

NPR correspondent Susan Davis is there and joins us from Columbia, S.C. Thanks so much for being with us, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: South Carolina is a state where most Democratic voters next year's primary will be African American. Tell us what people were talking about last night at the fish fry.

DAVIS: So I got there pretty early. I spent about three hours talking to African American voters waiting to get into the fish fry to get a sense of where they were at. And everyone I spoke to was aware of Biden's comments this week. But to the one, they really - I don't want to say they shrugged it off, but it really didn't change the way they view Joe Biden, and this applied young and old, generationally.

No one was really happy with exactly what he said. But I think people gave him a break and understood that that wasn't what he was trying to express. They don't - it doesn't change their views of him. It doesn't make them think Joe Biden has racist views or anything like that.

What they really said they didn't like about the whole episode is how it exposed, for the first time, this wave of infighting among the Democratic primary candidates. You know, he was taking heat from people like Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator, Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts. To the one, voters said over and over they don't want to hear the negativity just yet.

SIMON: What did Joe Biden say for himself?

DAVIS: So he did not bring up any of his comments earlier in the week, nor did any of his opponents, even though they were willing to talk about it going into the news event. I think the biggest news about Joe Biden was how short he spoke. Candidates were jokingly told by Jim Clyburn - he's the highest-ranking African American in Congress. He hosts the fish fry - to keep it short this time. Joe Biden actually did.

He's clearly positioning himself as if he was already the nominee. He is already the front-runner in South Carolina on the back of a lot of support from African American voters. He already sounded like he was giving what, to me, sounded like a convention speech.

Here's a little bit of what he had to say.


JOE BIDEN: You all know in your gut this election is more important than any one - no matter how old or young you are - you've ever been involved in, not because any one of us are running, but because of the man who occupies that office. We can make up the four years of damage he's done, but eight years of damage will be almost impossible to get back.

DAVIS: He didn't offer any new policy proposals, but he did make a big call for the party to rally around the nominee. That went over really well in the crowd. He also stayed later than any other candidate, Scott. He was there until almost midnight, working the crowd, taking selfies - still does the retail politics better than almost anyone in the field.

SIMON: Twenty-one candidates onstage last night - what else stood out for you?

DAVIS: You know, the one word I didn't hear a lot - impeachment. No one brought up impeachment about Donald Trump - very different conversation happening inside the Beltway. The things that went over really well in the crowd were when they talked about economic proposals. This was especially true for people like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Here's just a little bit of Warren.


ELIZABETH WARREN: How about a wealth tax on the top one-tenth of 1%?

DAVIS: Yeah. You hear - the crowd really liked that. She said she talked about how she'd use that money to pay for things like universal pre-K, teacher salaries, free college. Sanders' support for raising the minimum wage, removing student debt - those were all really big things. I did notice, tonally, when candidates talk about other things, like the Green New Deal or climate change - didn't go over as well.

Also, Scott, I learned a little bit about the Yang gang. Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang is one of the candidates in the field. He's trying to break through, and he ended his speech on a really funny line. It's really short. This is what he said.


ANDREW YANG: I am the man for that job because the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.

DAVIS: And he dove off the stage into the crowd. And that is maybe one way to try and break through in a very crowded primary field.

SIMON: NPR's Susan Davis in Columbia, S.C. Thanks so much.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.