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How South Carolina’s Democratic voters are weighing 2020 choice

On Saturday, South Carolina will go to the polls in the crucial last Democratic primary before Super Tuesday. Former Vice President Joe Biden appears to have a solid lead in the Palmetto State, leveraging his support among African American voters. But Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and businessman Tom Steyer also look competitive. Lisa Desjardins reports and joins Judy Woodruff from South Carolina.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just about 12 hours from now, the polls open in South Carolina, the crucial last Democratic primary before Super Tuesday.

    Lisa Desjardins reports on how voters in the Palmetto State are responding to the presidential candidates' closing arguments.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You want to win in South Carolina, you get off the highway and steer for places like Sumter, where Joe Biden was today for his final pitch, and where the population is nearly half African-American.

    Blacks make up the overwhelming majority of Democrats in this state, and Biden's key support.

  • Former Vice President Joseph Biden:

    This nation isn't looking for a revolution, as some of my colleagues talk about. They're looking for progress. They're looking for results.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Sumter is near the state's middle, part of a ribbon of counties with large black populations on either side of one particular highway, Interstate 95. Another, down the road, is Orangeburg County.

  • Tom Steyer:

    How are you guys doing?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Where billionaire activist Tom Steyer has returned repeatedly for months. His black and rural support has him eying second place here. He insists to us:

  • Tom Steyer:

    South Carolina is a chance for me to show that, in fact, I can pull together a diverse coalition, and actually get the momentum you're talking about.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But, for black voters, this vote is about a wide set of issues. At South Carolina State University, that means underfunded historically black colleges and overburdened students.

  • De’Jah Hoskins:

    I think I have two loans right now. I don't like loans.

  • Rushell Dickerson:

    Making college free or even just, you know, making it affordable for students to attend the school of their choice.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    While Elizabeth Warren has created buzz here, especially when appearing on campus with singer John Legend, the progressive top dog is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    And that is why we will invest in education and young people, in jobs, and education, not more jails and incarceration.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    His voters are part of a movement.

  • Marley McAfee:

    I think he could do it. I think enough Democrats would get behind him. I think, if he were to explain himself to more people about, like, don't be afraid of the word socialism.

  • Libby Lear:

    I'm a Democratic socialist now. But I used to be, I would say, pretty middle-of-the-road Democrat. I have moved farther and farther to the left as Trump and his hoards of people have gotten stronger.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    His audiences are large here, but the past two days at least, they have also been largely white, which brings us back to Biden and why his strength remains.

  • Harold McClain:

    Contrary to popular belief, we are a diverse voting bloc.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Community leader Harold McClain invited us to his home, where he barbecues in big batches and stockpiles his hometown ginger ale.

  • Harold McClain:

    It started in the little town of Blenheim, South Carolina.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The son of a sharecropper, he was the first in his family to go to college. As a student protester in 1968, he survived the Orangeburg Massacre, in which state police shot at 200 students, killing three.

  • Harold McClain:

    I lived that. And the community hasn't changed a whole lot from then until now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The environment and water quality are real concerns.

  • Harold McClain:

    I'm not the only one that sees these issues. I think my culture see these issues as readily as every other culture in this country.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So is a sense of community. He trusts Biden, believes he can unify, and that Sanders goes too far.

  • Harold McClain:

    If you give everybody everything, then they don't know how to work for anything.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Take one more drive, this time to a place few candidates go, and where even more is at stake.

    Fairfield County has struggled after decades of a long domino run of major job and business loss. The relatively new Restaurant Next Door is gambling that things can change, but Lynn Tucker is unsure about that, and about his vote.

  • Lynn Tucker:

    I know there's still a lot of people out of work,and the economy is really bad. I mean, and everything is higher now, higher price, but no more pay. That's about it. I just think either Biden or Sanders. I'm not sure which way I'm going yet.

  • Crystal Paulk:

    The decision is hard, harder, I'd say, this time around, opposed to last.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Crystal Paulk owns Restaurant Next Door. It's a family business, right down to their famous donuts. She too is undecided, with one question:

  • Crystal Paulk:

    Who can — I'm not going to say, who can beat Trump? I'm going to say, who can stand in and have a fair fight against Trump? And let the people decide.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Electability is a key argument from former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, also crisscrossing South Carolina roads, while Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar has been in and out of the state.

    But the title fight here is three-way, Biden, Sanders and Steyer, a fight on back roads and in small towns over who appeals to rural and black voters and who really understands their issues.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Lisa joins me now from a Joe Biden rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

    So, hello to you, Lisa.

    Just yesterday, you were standing in that spot after — or during a Bernie Sanders rally. What are the differences you're seeing?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Fascinating dichotomy, Judy.

    Yesterday, Bernie Sanders was at this college, but in the basketball arena with 2,000 supporters. This is the volleyball court next door for Joe Biden, a much smaller venue, with about 600 people.

    However, Joe Biden has in this audience the voters that I think everyone wants in this state in many more numbers and Bernie Sanders, African-Americans, Sanders' crowd yesterday highly white. This crowd seems to be almost half and half, if not more African-Americans.

    That's what Biden wants to see. Of course, he wants a big win tomorrow. And one more note, Judy. Talking to voters here tonight, I feel that anxiety level for Democrats coming down, still some indecision, but a little a little less anxious than we saw in other states.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, Lisa, you're talking to a lot of people. What do they say about how important South Carolina is and what comes next?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The idea here is that Biden needs not just a win, but a decisive win.

    And then what? Well, his campaign tells me that they think he will get momentum, be seen as a winner going into Super Tuesday.

    Other campaigns dispute that. They say there's not enough time to build new momentum. Super Tuesday will be enormous, Judy, for Mike Bloomberg especially. But, also, Elizabeth Warren needs to surprise.

    The Buttigieg campaign, Judy, they want to stay in the top three in general. This is going to be a very big week.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No question.

    Lisa Desjardins from all over the state of South Carolina, thank you, Lisa.

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