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Biden's alive. In a survival contest, will that be enough?

Analysis: The former vice president resurrected his campaign with a convincing victory, but he may have to do better to catch up with Bernie Sanders.
Image: Joe Biden
With Bernie Sanders demonstrating strength among Latino and African American voters, Joe Biden will have to do better to catch up.Matt Rourke / AP

CHARLESTON, S.C. — This might not have been the win Joe Biden originally envisioned, but it's the one he needed.

Early on, there was a version of the former vice president's campaign in which an exclamatory victory in South Carolina would have effectively put away his competition for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Instead, Biden came into the state a week ago with his back against the wall, desperate to register a first-place finish before the Super Tuesday contests in 14 states, and running low on both cash and the confidence of centrists Democrats eager to stop front-running progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Now, if Biden comes back to win the nomination, the South Carolina primary will be looked upon as the turning point in his campaign — the birthplace of an epic resurrection. Fueled by the 60 percent support he got among the black electorate in the wake of a late endorsement from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., Biden breathed new life into his operation just three days before the biggest date on the primary calendar.

Speaking to cheering supporters at his South Carolina headquarters Saturday night, Biden looked like a man granted a new lease on life. "We are very much alive,” he declared. “This campaign is taking off!”

But the fact that Biden needed help here at the end, and his inability to rack up the kind of margin that signaled the dominance of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the 2008 and 2016 Democratic primaries, suggested that he will have to fight harder and smarter to galvanize the splintered non-Sanders vote in the Democratic Party.

"Maybe momentum out of South Carolina will be enough to compensate, but 72 hours ain’t much time, and most Super Tuesday states don’t come with an electorate tailor-made for Biden," said Laurin Manning Gandy, who was director of political operations for Obama in 2008 and worked on Sen. Cory Booker's 2020 campaign in the state, in a text exchange with NBC News.

"If young Latino voters show up for Sanders in California like they did in Nevada, Sanders could secure an insurmountable delegate lead yet," she said, adding that the results Saturday don't change the basic dynamics of the campaign as Democrats look toward their convention this summer. "Sanders is still the front-runner. And there’s still a high likelihood we’re going to need a lot of popcorn in Milwaukee. And/or riot gear."

Any Biden bounce from South Carolina is limited by the fact that early voters in many Super Tuesday states, including California and Texas, have been casting ballots since long before Election Day. And the degree to which California Democrats will be affected by the result in South Carolina is no small matter.

Right now, Sanders is the only candidate who appears to be assured of reaching the 15 percent threshold to win a share of the California's 144 statewide delegates. Biden entered Saturday in third place with an 11 percent polling average in the state, according to Real Clear Politics, trailing Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who was at 17 percent.

A bump of just 4 percentage points could mean scores of delegates for Biden — more than he netted in South Carolina — depending on how other candidates fare.

Biden also trails Sanders in Texas, the Super Tuesday state with the second-biggest delegate pool on the docket. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is running roughly even with Biden there, and Bloomberg's team believes that the hundreds of millions of dollars he has dumped into the race will show him to be a more formidable opponent to Sanders.

"Mike Bloomberg has not been on the ballot yet," his campaign manager, Kevin Sheekey, said in a statement. "Mike is the only candidate to campaign in all 14 Super Tuesday states over the last two months, and we look forward to Tuesday."

In addition to Biden and Bloomberg, Warren, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, are all hoping they will show strength on that day and force some of their rivals out of the race. Billionaire Tom Steyer dropped out Saturday night after a disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina.

Biden's team is optimistic that its victory here will convince Democratic voters to abandon rivals who have not shown the ability to win in states with diverse electorates. That would put him in position to go one-on-one with Sanders over the long haul. But one-third of all the delegates are up for grabs Tuesday, meaning that the chances of Biden or any other candidate winning a majority before the Milwaukee convention will be greatly reduced by Wednesday.

At the same time, Clyburn said on CNN Saturday that Biden's campaign needs "some retooling" to be successful. "I'm not going to sit on by and watch people mishandle his campaign."

The implicit message, which Democratic operatives pointed to during the week, is that Biden could have won by more — and with less assistance from Clyburn at the end — if he'd run a better operation in the state. In the end, the victory was enough to give Biden a crucial boost.

It bolstered his rationale for being the Democrat best-positioned to take on both Sanders and President Donald Trump by showing that he can win in a state with a diverse electorate. But with Sanders demonstrating strength among Latino voters, and also pulling support from the African American community, Biden will have to do better to catch up with the front-runner.