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Biden returns to South Carolina to show his determination to win back Black voters in 2024

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Joe Biden doesn’t need to worry about his prospects in South Carolina’s Democratic primary next week. He’s got that locked up.

He also knows he’s not likely to win the solidly red state come November. It hasn’t voted for a Democrat since 1976.

He’s spent the weekend in the state nonetheless, intent on driving home two messages: He’s loyal to the state that saved his campaign in 2020 and he’s determined to win back Black voters here and elsewhere who were central to his election last time but are less enthused this go-round.

“You’re the reason I am president," Biden told attendees at the state party’s fundraising dinner ahead of its first ever “first-in-the-nation” Democratic primary on Feb. 3. "You’re the reason Kamala Harris is a historic vice president. And you’re the reason Donald Trump is a defeated former president. You’re the reason Donald Trump is a loser. And you’re the reason we’re going to win and beat him again.”

Biden received raved applause and chants of “four more years” from attendees at the dinner, as he criticized his predecessor's policies and highlighted his efforts to support Black Americans. He was set to spend Sunday in the state where politics and faith are intertwined at a political event at St. John Baptist Church.

Deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks said of the primary that Biden’s team was working to “blow this out of the water” by running up the score against longshot challengers. The Biden campaign also wants to learn lessons about activating Black voters — the backbone of the party — ahead of an expected 2024 rematch with GOP front-runner Donald Trump.

Biden also reiterated his willingness to take extreme measures to curtail immigration on the U.S.-Mexico border, as lawmakers continue talks on a reform of the country’s immigration policies, saying that he would shut down the border “right now” if such a bill were to pass.

Calling border security “one of the most important issues we’re facing,” Biden said a ”bipartisan bill" would give him “the emergency authority to shut down the border until it could get back under control," noting that it would fund additional border security agents, immigration judges and asylum officers. “If that bill were the law today, I’d shut down the border right now and fix it quickly,” he said.

Saturday was the first time Biden shared a stage with Rep. Dean Phillips, a longshot challenger for the Democratic nomination, who called on the president, 81, to step aside for a younger generation of leaders to take on Trump.

“The numbers do not say things are looking good," Phillips said of Biden's poll numbers, at times struggling to hold the attention of the crowd, many of whom were holding Biden campaign signs ahead of the president's appearance.

“My invitation to president Biden is to pass the torch," Phillips said. Struggling to hold the attention of the crowd, many of whom were holding Biden campaign signs ahead of the president’s appearance, Phillips repeatedly asked the audience to quiet down and listen to him.

He told The Associated Press he did not interact with Biden at the event, saying of Biden's staff, "No. I don’t think they want him to see me.”

Ahead of the dinner, Biden stopped into Regal Lounge Men’s Barber & Spa in Columbia, greeting, owners, employees and customers mid-haircut at the barbershop.

The president has been getting mixed reviews from some Black voters in the state that came through for him in 2020, including discontent over his failure to deliver on voting rights legislation and other issues.

Last year, at the outset of Biden’s reelection bid, conflicting views among the same South Carolina Democratic voters whose support had been so crucial to his nomination provided an early warning sign of the challenges he faces as he tries to revive his diverse winning coalition from 2020.

Overall, just 50% of Black adults said they approved of Biden in a December poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs. That is compared with 86% in July 2021, a shift that is generating concern about the president's reelection prospects.

APVoteCast, an extensive national survey of the electorate, also found that support for Republican candidates ticked up slightly among Black voters during the 2022 midterm elections, although Black voters overwhelmingly supported Democrats.

The Biden campaign is running TV ads in South Carolina highlighting Biden initiatives that it hopes will boost enthusiasm among Black voters.

“On his first day in office with a country in crisis, President Biden got to work — for us,” the ad states. “Cutting Black child poverty in half, more money for Black entrepreneurs, millions of new good-paying jobs and he lowered the cost of prescription drugs.”

The campaign is spending more than $270,000 on the ads through the primary, according to tracking data. The Democratic National Committee also launched a six-figure ad campaign across South Carolina and Nevada, which is next on the Democratic primary calendar, to boost enthusiasm for Biden among Black and Latino voters. And first lady Jill Biden was in the state on Friday evening to rally voters.

Biden’s campaign has also hired staff in South Carolina to organize ahead of the primary and through the general election, although for nearly 50 years the state has picked a Republican for president.

Meanwhile, a pro-Biden super PAC, Unite the Country, is airing an ad featuring Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina ticking through what he says are major Biden accomplishments such as reducing student loan debt and cutting insulin costs for older people.

It was Clyburn's 2020 endorsement of his longtime friend Biden that helped the then-candidate score a thundering win in South Carolina’s presidential primary,

In the new ad, Clyburn references his late wife, Emily, who influenced his 2020 endorsement of Biden. She said “that if we wanted to win the presidency, we better nominate Joe Biden,” Clyburn says in the ad. “She was right then, and she’s still right today.”

Clyburn greeted Biden at the airport and accompanied him throughout his visit.

While Trump has seen slightly improving levels of support among Black and Latino voters, Biden's team is more concerned that a lack of enthusiasm for Biden will depress turnout among voters who are pivotal to the Democratic coalition.

Biden's team is using South Carolina as a proving ground, tracking what messages and platforms break through with voters.

South Carolina, where Black voters make up a majority of the Democratic electorate, is now the first meaningful contest in the Democratic presidential race after the party reworked the party’s nominating calendar at Biden’s call. Leading off with Iowa and New Hampshire had long drawn criticism because the states are less diverse than the rest of the country.

“It’s important for us to show up and to show out,” said Shivani Dahya, 22, a fellow with the state Democratic party from Rock Hill, asked about the import of Biden performing well with South Carolina’s non-white Democratic voters. “I think being first in the nation, we’ve set the example so other states can look at us and say, look at them, they’re voting, they’re getting out there, so let’s do the same.”

Moving up the South Carolina vote was also a political payback to the state and Clyburn for their role in sending Biden to the White House.

A co-chairman of Biden’s reelection campaign, Clyburn has remained one of the president’s most stalwart advocates in Congress, as well as in his home state. Frequently, he reminds people of the same message he delivered in his 2020 endorsement: “We know Joe, and Joe knows us.”

Biden's decision to campaign in the state “helps solidify South Carolina’s place as the first in the nation primary moving forward,” said Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler.

It also provides Biden an opportunity to re-engage with Black voters who have connections that extend well beyond South Carolina.

“Obviously the diaspora is strong, familial ties are strong with other key swing states in the area like Georgia and North Carolina,” Tyler said.

This is Biden's second trip to South Carolina this month. He spoke earlier in the month at the pulpit of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where nine Black parishioners were shot to death in 2015 by a white stranger they had invited to join their Bible study. In his speech, Biden denounced the “poison” of white supremacy in America and said such ideology has no place in America, “not today, tomorrow or ever.”

It was meant as a direct contrast with Trump, whom Biden accused of “glorifying” rather than condemning political violence.