In his victory speech on the night of the South Carolina primary, Joe Biden fired a broadside at Bernie Sanders.
The leftist Vermont senator, he said, would “scrap” Obamacare, “protect” gun manufacturers and raise taxes on the middle class. Worst of all, the former vice-president warned, Mr. Sanders would be unable to defeat President Donald Trump.
“We have the option of winning big or losing big,” Mr. Biden told a gymnasium full of supporters at the University of South Carolina. “That’s the choice.”
The landslide win – Mr. Biden beat the second-place Mr. Sanders by 28 percentage points – saved his flagging campaign after dismal finishes in three previous states.
Now, he must prove that he can win big to become the main moderate challenger to the insurgent self-described socialist currently leading the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The next tests are just hours away on Super Tuesday, when several major states including California, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and Massachusetts vote.
Auguring well for Mr. Biden was his dominance among South Carolina’s African-American voters, the Democratic Party’s most loyal demographic. He also won older voters and suburbanites. The game now will be trying to hold such a coalition together to overcome Mr. Sanders’s base of youth and working-class people.
Black leaders in South Carolina said Mr. Biden’s popularity with African-Americans was largely a function of his many years spent building relationships with the community – prominent black politicians such as long-time South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn endorsed him – as well as his association with former president Barack Obama.
“If President Obama was willing to trust him, we should be willing to trust him as a race, as a group of people,” said Eric Manning, pastor of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. “In this particular state, the reason there is a closeness to Joe Biden is because he was the vice-president to the first African-American president.”
Mr. Manning, however, said Mr. Sanders’s raucous rallies reminded him of the energy and enthusiasm around Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Helping Mr. Biden’s chances were the cratering of fellow moderates Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar in South Carolina. Mr. Steyer quit the race on election night, while Mr. Buttigieg dropped out Sunday night.
Still, Mr. Biden will soon have to face another contender for the centre lane: Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, did not contest early state primaries in favour of spending his fortune on advertising in Super Tuesday states. Mr. Bloomberg is fighting Mr. Biden for second place in most national polls.
Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Bloomberg spent part of Sunday in Selma, Ala., at a commemoration for “Bloody Sunday,” the 1965 protest during which police attacked civil rights marchers.
Super Tuesday states with large black populations – Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas – could prove Mr. Biden’s best hope for arresting Mr. Sanders’s momentum.
Unclear, however, is whether Mr. Biden’s South Carolina blowout has come too late to save his campaign. Mr. Sanders leads polls in both California and Texas, and could amass a nearly insurmountable lead in delegates. Mr. Biden has virtually no time to hit voters with additional ads before voting day.
South Carolina was worrying for Mr. Sanders. He has stepped up his efforts to win over African-Americans after largely failing during his 2016 campaign, and had recently overtaken Mr. Biden in some national polls of black voters. But he came up far short.
On Sunday, Mr. Sanders fired back at Mr. Biden’s contention that socialist policies would not win an election. He vowed to motivate people who don’t normally vote to come to the polls.
“For too long, the Democratic Party and leaders have been going to rich people’s homes, raising money, and they’ve ignored the working class and the middle class and low-income people,” he said.
With fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren finishing far behind in every state so far, Mr. Sanders has largely dominated the left lane of the race.
Mr. Biden stepped up his game on the stump in South Carolina, delivering tougher speeches attacking Mr. Sanders’s history of voting against gun control and in favour of shielding gun makers from lawsuits when their weapons are used to kill people. Mr. Sanders has said that these votes were “bad” and he has changed his mind.
The former vice-president also emotionally recalled visiting Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston in 2015 after a white supremacist gunned down nine congregants, and finding solace for the death of his own son, Beau.
And Mr. Biden faced attack ads from a pro-Trump SuperPAC on local television in South Carolina, an indication that the President still sees him as the most formidable threat to his re-election. It all comes after Mr. Trump used his impeachment trial to repeatedly air unproved allegations that Mr. Biden improperly helped his other son, Hunter, with his business interests in Ukraine while vice-president.
Felicia Cummings, a 63-year-old nurse, said Mr. Biden’s overcoming of adversity – and ability to stare down Mr. Trump – were his most appealing qualities as a candidate.
“He’s strong, he’s honest and he’s been fighting for us for more than 40 years,” she said. “He’s been beat up a lot, but he keeps coming back.”