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Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Sumter, S.C, on Saturday, July 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

The Associated Press

After spending weeks under fire for his decades-long history on race and civil rights, Joe Biden on Saturday gave the most forceful defense yet of his record, emphasizing his time as vice-president to Barack Obama, and also did something he had resisted in the past – apologize for warmly reminiscing about his working relationships with Southern segregationists.

Mr. Biden, who in the past had been defiant about those remarks and was often reluctant to issue apologies, told a heavily African American audience gathered in this crucial early-voting state Saturday afternoon that he regretted those remarks, which had sparked backlash from many Democrats.

He also used his speech to draw contrasts with some of the Democratic opponents to his left.

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“Now, was I wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to people that I was praising those men who I successfully opposed time and again?” he said. “Yes, I was. I regret it. I’m sorry for any of the pain and misconception I may have caused anybody.”

The room broke into applause, drowning out Mr. Biden. But, he asked the crowd, should “that misstep define 50 years of my record for fighting for civil rights, racial justice in this country?”

“I hope not,” he said, as some in the crowd murmured “no.” Mr. Biden added: “I don’t think so. That just isn’t an honest assessment of my record.”

The remarks came during Mr. Biden’s first public event of a weekend trip to South Carolina, a state with a heavily African American Democratic electorate, where Mr. Obama is beloved.

It is a state where Mr. Biden has so far enjoyed significant good-will tied to his time in the Obama administration. And his visit comes amid recent scrutiny of his civil-rights record and slipping national poll numbers following his first Democratic debate of the 2020 presidential primary and its heated exchanges over busing and race.

On Saturday, before a crowd that appeared sympathetic and often enthusiastic, Mr. Biden sought to put his record on issues like the 1994 Crime Bill – which many associate with mass incarceration – or in dealing with segregationist lawmakers, in what he cast as historical context.

And he also worked to focus attention on his time serving under Mr. Obama.

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“It’s as if my opponents want you to believe I served from 1972 until 2008 – and then took a hiatus for the next eight years,” he said. “They don’t want to talk much about my time as vice-president of the United States.”

“I was vetted by him and ten serious lawyers he appointed, go back look at every single thing” in his record, “from finances to anything I had done, everything,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Obama. “And he selected me. I’ll take his judgment about my record, my character, my ability to handle the job over anyone else’s.”

For weeks, Mr. Biden’s aides had watched in frustration as much of the conversation around the former vice-president had centered not on his time in the White House – which is how voters know him best – but on controversies dating back to the 1970s.

Mr. Biden had brought up those relationships himself as he fondly recalled a more civil time in the Senate at a fundraiser last month. He has a habit of telling stories that date back decades, and that can sometimes sound off-key in today’s more progressive Democratic Party.

But the speech was a new effort to focus on a more forward-looking message, after spending the Fourth of July holiday in Iowa locked in a back-and-forth with Senator Kamala Harris over the issue of federally mandated busing.

Ms. Harris had been pressed by reporters to clarify her current position on that issue after attacking Mr. Biden for his 1970s-era opposition to many busing measures during the first Democratic primary debate. His campaign suggested that, despite her criticism, Ms. Harris’ position today is essentially the same as his, while she said that the civil-rights environment in the 1970s had been different than it is now, and that his position at that time was “wrong.”

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“I know that many want this campaign to be about my past,” he said. “I get it. That’s the game. But this isn’t a game. Every one of you know, no matter who you’re for, know in your bones, know this election is different.”

Mr. Biden also made clear that in contrast to some of his more liberal opponents, he is not calling for revolutionary change on issues like the Affordable Care Act, saying his support is for a public option. It was an implicit contrast with those who would support bolder change as part of proposals like Medicare for All, and a sign of his increased willingness to engage with his opponents rather than keeping his focus on President Donald Trump.

“We don’t have time,” he said of those who want to “start over.”

At least one rival campaign is already signalling that it does not plan to let Mr. Biden move on from his past so easily.

“Every candidate’s record will (and should) be scrutinized in this race,” tweeted Ian Sams, the national press secretary for Ms. Harris. “It’s a competition to become President of the United States. There are no free passes.”

Mr. Biden is focused on courting African American voters while also seeking to appeal to disaffected Democrats in the industrial Midwest who supported Mr. Trump in 2016.

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The current President, meanwhile, has been increasingly eager to talk dismissively about the Obama years, – often mischaracterizing them – which appears to be an effort, in part, to keep those voters in his fold.

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