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National

Warren And Biden Compete For Black Voters

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Senator Elizabeth Warren has joined former Vice President Joe Biden at the top of the Democratic primary race. She's raised lots of money and overtaken him in several polls. But Mr. Biden holds a big lead among African American voters, and that gives him an important advantage, especially in the key primary state of South Carolina. WBUR's Anthony Brooks went to a rally in that state.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: From the state of Massachusetts, senior senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Thank you.

ANTHONY BROOKS, BYLINE: This is an important audience for Elizabeth Warren - students at South Carolina State University, an historically black university in the middle of the state. Warren was here this week with South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, the state's most influential Democrat. Clyburn has not endorsed Warren, but he's cosponsoring a bill with her that would cancel student loan debt for tens of millions of Americans. Warren says the burden of all that debt hits black students particularly hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL RALLY)

WARREN: We are disproportionately crushing a generation of students of color. That is not how a country builds a future, and we got to change that.

(APPLAUSE)

BROOKS: The audience appreciates Warren's message, but many here, like student Seth Harling, don't know much about her.

SETH HARLING: I'll definitely go do some research on her and see what her stand is on certain issues. And right now it's, you know, leaning more towards Joe Biden, just sort of some effect that he was once in that position, so he knows what has to be done.

BROOKS: Because he's so well-known, Joe Biden has a big advantage in this state, especially among older African Americans.

JIM FELDER: Well, Joe Biden's always been my guy, even before this race.

BROOKS: Jim Felder has deep roots in the Democratic Party. Back in 1963, he was a young Army sergeant who led the honor guard that carried John F. Kennedy's casket. Then he was a state legislator, and he headed the local NAACP for a while. Felder says people here know and trust Biden as Barack Obama's vice president.

FELDER: The African American community in South Carolina remembers him because of Obama, plus he served well. And independent from just being the No. 2 man, he did an excellent job.

BROOKS: Polls show Biden has a substantial lead over Warren in South Carolina, thanks largely to African Americans, who represent about two-thirds of the state's Democratic voters. But other polls suggest that Warren is improving her standing nationally with black voters. So her supporters here, like Wendy Brawley, a state rep from Columbia, says Warren's case for big structural change and economic justice will catch on.

WENDY BRAWLEY: I think when more people hear that message in South Carolina, it's going to serve the African American vote very well.

BROOKS: Brawley argues that Warren, more than Biden, will give Democrats the best chance to win in 2020.

BRAWLEY: The voters of this country have voted for change. They voted for it when President Obama became president. I think that's when we win. Then we need to have change agents, not people who want to play it safe.

(CROSSTALK)

BROOKS: That view is at the heart of a debate among Democrats - embrace progressive change, or a more moderate known quantity, like Biden. At a community event in Columbia this week, that tension was evident. Reverend Patricia Jones of Charleston, S.C., says she knows and likes Biden, but now she's hearing about Warren and says she's torn.

PATRICIA JONES: Only because Elizabeth Warren is saying what I need to hear - student loan debt forgiveness. That's where I am right now with my own student loans. My daughter is now a freshman in college. That is a big selling point for me.

BROOKS: The South Carolina primary helped propel Barack Obama toward the nomination in 2008, as it did Hillary Clinton in 2016. That's what Joe Biden is counting on, and it's why Elizabeth Warren hopes to catch up here. For NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.