CHARLESTON, S.C. — Joe Biden got the resounding victory his struggling campaign needed in South Carolina on Saturday night, buoyed by strong support from black voters, according to an NBC News projection.
"Just days ago, the press and the pundits had declared this candidacy dead," Biden told supporters. "Now, thanks to all of you, the heart of the Democratic Party, we've just won and we’ve won big because of you. We are very much alive!"
But the former vice president still has plenty of ground to make up to reclaim his position atop the 2020 Democratic field with Super Tuesday just days away, when he'll face national frontrunner Bernie Sanders, who finished second in South Carolina, according to an NBC News projection.
With 99 percent in, Biden had 48.6 percent and Sanders had 19.8 percent - a winning margin of about 150,000 votes. Tom Steyer — who ended his campaign after going all-in on South Carolina and coming up short — Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar were running further back.
The win for Biden, along with at least 38 of the 54 delegates at stake, gives his campaign a much-needed shot in the arm ahead of Tuesday's primaries next week, when 14 states vote. Sanders was set to collect at least 15 delegates in South Carolina. In the overall national delegate contest, Sanders has 60 and Biden has 53.
It's Biden's first-ever primary win, after two early presidential bids fizzled out early, and this year started with losses in the first three states. And he's now overtaken Sanders in the total popular vote of the four contests so far.
"You can launch a candidacy," Biden said in one of his fiery speeches of the 2020 campaign. "You launched Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to the presidency. Now you launch our campaign on the path to beating Donald Trump!"
Sanders has spent far more time and money than Biden preparing to compete in those upcoming contests, when nearly 40 percent of the delegates are at stake.
The Vermont senator has pulled into the lead nationally after strong showings in the first three contests, prompting moderate Democrats to grow increasingly agitated that the democratic socialist would be unstoppable after Tuesday, when more than a dozen states vote, unless the rest of the field can consolidate around one alternative candidate.
Addressing supporters in Virginia, which votes Tuesday, Sanders congratulated Biden on his win South Carolina. "You cannot win 'em all," Sanders said of his second-place finish. "There are a lot of states out there."
Biden could now reclaim that mantle after reversing the tailspin his campaign has been in since his fourth and fifth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, and arguing he’s the only candidate who convincingly win black voters, the most loyal base of the Democratic Party.
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Biden found his stride here after turning his focus back to South Carolina, where he has decades-long political ties, appearing more comfortable and confident on the stump as he devoted an entire past week to the state while other candidates skipped ahead to future contests.
And he earned a major boost from Rep. Jim Clyburn, the most powerful Democrat in South Carolina and the highest-ranking black member of Congress, who endorsed Biden Wednesday and is already slated to campaign for him in neighboring North Carolina and other upcoming states.
Biden ended up winning 61 percent of black voters while Sanders won just 16 percent, according to NBC News exit polls. Warren earned five percent of black voters while Buttigieg got only 3 and Klobuchar won zero.
Biden will now look to repeat his massive margins with black voters in states like Alabama, Arkansas and Virginia, which vote next week, where he’s also hoping his long slate of endorsers can tap into their own political networks to help fill gaps for Biden’s under-resourced campaign.
Biden benefited from his association with former President Barack Obama here, with half of the voters overall — and 66 percent of black voters — saying they wanted a return to his policies, instead of a shift to a more liberal or conservative direction, according to exit polls.
The electorate was more conservative than other states are likely to be, however, with 83 percent of Democratic voters saying they attend church or religious services and half calling themselves moderate or conservative.
Clyburn and other black Democratic leaders may have bailed out Biden here — half of voters said Clyburn’s endorsement was an important factor in their decision, according to NBC News exit polls — but the third-ranking House Democrat suggested the former vice president’s campaign needs a major shakeup to compete.
"We need to do some retooling in the campaign," Clyburn said on CNN. "I did not feel free to speak out about or even deal with it inside, because I had not committed to his candidacy. I have now. I'm all in. And I'm not going to sit on by, and watch people mishandle his campaign. We are going to get it right."
The strong showing in South Carolina also led former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to come off the sidelines and endorse Biden and call on other candidates to drop out of the race.
Biden and Sanders will both have to contend on Tuesday with Bloomberg, who skipped the first four contests, but has climbed in national polls after spending more than half a billion dollars of his own money to run ads in states that vote in March, when the majority of delegates will be at stake.
President Donald Trump, who has been eager to weigh in on the Democratic primary and held a rally here Friday, said Biden's win should be the end of Bloomberg's campaign.
Money was not determinative in South Carolina, where Steyer, a California billionaire, briefly became an unlikely frontrunner by building the largest campaign in the state and spending more on TV ads than anyone else.
"I said if I didn't see a path to winning, then I'd suspend my campaign. And honestly, I can't see a path where I can win the presidency," Steyer told supporters Saturday night. "This has been a great experience. I have zero regrets."
The rest of the field had not invested heavily in South Carolina, a sign of their struggle with black voters nationally, and all decamped to Super Tuesday states Saturday night as South Carolina results rolled in. Warren
Warren, speaking to supporters in Houston, took shots at three other leading candidates, showing again that she's grown more aggressive as her campaign has lost altitude.
She warned Biden is too "eager to cut deals with Mitch McConnell, said Sanders "consistently calls for things he fails to get done" and suggested Bloomberg will "govern to protect himself and his rich friends."