Former Vice President Joe Biden is in the fight of his political life, and that was immediately obvious Tuesday night in Charleston, South Carolina. He was no longer at the center of the debate stage because of declining national polling and disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. And though he delivered a strong performance in a must-win state that votes Saturday, it's uncertain whether that will give his campaign the momentum and resources it needs heading into next week's all-important Super Tuesday, when roughly 40% of pledged convention delegates will be up for grabs.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was finally subjected to the frontrunner treatment during the 10th Democratic primary debate, but he generally escaped unscathed and remains in a formidable position to capture the nomination. Biden's solid debate performance and a victory in South Carolina could be the beginning of a comeback kid narrative, but much more hard work and good fortune would be required for his campaign to make it to the next debate March 15 in Phoenix.
Billionaire Tom Steyer has exhibited real strength in recent South Carolina polls because of a robust advertising campaign. He and Sanders have significantly cut into Biden's support from black voters, who make up about 60% of the state's Democratic primary electorate.
Stealing a page from Trump playbook
Biden smartly pointed out that Steyer's hedge fund had bought a private prison company in 2004. Steyer looked genuinely defeated after the attack. He was only afforded about seven total minutes of speaking time and was largely an afterthought. Steyer enjoyed substantial support in Nevada at one time, but this largely faded by the state's caucuses last Saturday. Biden is no doubt hoping Steyer meets a similar fate in South Carolina.
The highlight of Biden's debate performance was his pledge to nominate the first black woman to the Supreme Court.U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was previously interviewed for a Supreme Court appointment and likely is at the top of Biden's mind. She clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer and is related to former House Speaker Paul Ryan by marriage. In December she issued a ruling that former White House counsel Don McGahn should appear before the House Judiciary Committee.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump published a list of 25 potential Supreme Court justices in 2016 and this novel political ploy paid great dividends during the election. Biden appears to have stolen a page from the Trump playbook which could pay off in South Carolina and beyond.
Despite demonstrating a keen sense of urgency, Biden's evening was not perfect. He continually complained about the moderators and time limits. Biden did have less speaking time than Sanders, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, and was not part of key exchanges throughout the night. And when he criticized Sanders for shielding gun manufacturers, Sanders deftly handled it by admitting he took a "bad vote" in 2005 and saying his thinking had evolved on this critical issue.
Biden's roller coaster performance
Most importantly, Biden did not receive much assistance from Warren in weakening Sanders. She made some minor critiques of his policy details and management style, but this was quite mild compared to the blistering and sustained attacks she leveled against Bloomberg. A successful path to a Biden nomination probably requires Warren to successfully siphon off a portion of the Sanders vote and slow his delegate accumulation. This is unlikely to occur as long as Warren remains fixated on Bloomberg during debates.
During a memorable exchange with Steyer after the billionaire talked about how he had worked hard to ease racial bias in criminal justice and banking, Biden told him, "Where we come from, that's called Tommy come lately.” But this clever takeoff on "Johnny come lately" may more appropriately describe Biden's presidential campaign and 10 debates.
A terrible inaugural debate performance in Miami was followed by a comeback in Detroit. Disappointing fourth and fifth place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire gave way to a decent second place showing in Nevada. The former vice president has lagged in campaign fundraising and organization, but now he could be on the precipice of a big win in South Carolina following the positive debate and Wednesday's endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn.
If this erratic pattern is not enough to fend off Sanders and Bloomberg on Super Tuesday, Biden will have no one to blame but himself.
Aaron Kall is the director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor/co-author of "Debating the Donald." Joshua Clark is head debate coach at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. Follow Kall on Twitter: @AaronsUKBBBlog
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's political future is at stake after erratic campaign and debates