On the trail: Biden, Sanders clash over healthcare as Biden consolidates black voter support

MCCLELLANVILLE, S.C/WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (Reuters) – Democratic presidential hopefuls spread out across South Carolina on Thursday as the clock ticked down to the state’s Saturday primary, the first big test of their appeal with African-American voters.

Several candidates also headed to some of the Super Tuesday regions, the 14-state March 3 contest that offers the largest single-day haul of delegates in the Democratic Party’s White House nominating battle.

Here’s what’s happening Thursday:

CLASH OVER HEALTHCARE

Former Vice President Joe Biden repeated his attacks on rival and national front-runner Bernie Sanders’s government-run Medicare for All plan, saying the senator from Vermont’s proposal is too costly, won’t help poor people, and is too politically toxic.

Speaking at a community health center in McClellanville, South Carolina, Biden said low-income people in the rural fishing hamlet “can’t afford to wait” five to 10 years for a Sanders plan to be implemented, if it passes Congress at all.

Shortly afterwards, at a rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Sanders outlined the urgency of healthcare reform given that 87 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured.

“It is not a radical idea that when you get sick you should be able to go to the doctor no matter what your income is,” he said.

The dispute between Democratic moderates such as Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and progressives like Sanders was the backdrop to an incident before the senator’s rally. One supporter held up a sign depicting Buttigieg as a rodent with the words “rat bastard” scrawled on the candidate’s photograph.

“Rat” is a derogatory term often used by striking workers against corporations or non-union members.

Aides to Sanders, who has come under fire after some of his supporters unleashed aggressive verbal attacks on his rivals, acted quickly to get the sign taken down.

BIDEN LEADS WITH BLACK VOTERS

A Monmouth University poll released on Thursday showed Biden with large support from black South Carolina voters, who make up about 60% of the Democratic electorate in the Southern state.

Biden, who has pinned his hopes on winning South Carolina to keep his candidacy alive after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire and a distant second place in Nevada, is backed by 36% of likely Democratic voters, according to the survey, well ahead of Sanders, who has 16% support, and billionaire Tom Steyer with 15%.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts trails far behind with 8%, while Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have 6% and 4%, respectively.

Among likely black voters, Biden has 45% support, compared with 17% for Steyer and 13% for Sanders, the poll showed.

The positive numbers came a day after Biden received the coveted endorsement of congressman James Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives and an influential black lawmaker.

Some African-American voters are still torn. Kayla Hodges, a 22-year-old senior at historically black Claflin University in Orangeburg, said she was still deciding whether to support Biden or Warren and argued that black voters want to know how a candidate would address inequality in all areas of life.

“He’s trying to continue (President Barack) Obama’s legacy – he’s been there,” said Hodges, who attended a Warren rally on Wednesday at another historically black school nearby, South Carolina State University. “But maybe it’s not Biden’s time anymore.”

SLAMMING TRUMP’S CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE

Candidates attacked Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak at a CNN town hall on Wednesday in South Carolina, shortly after Trump held a news conference saying the risk from the virus was “very low” in the United States and put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the response.

Biden lamented the Trump administration’s cuts in funding to the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’ve got good scientists, and I just want the president to get on the same page as the scientists,” Biden said.

Klobuchar, referring to Pence leading the response effort, said: “Usually you might put a medical professional in charge.”

Mike Bloomberg also criticized Trump at a rally in Houston on Thursday, accusing him of “burying his head in the sand” over what the former New York mayor called “a crisis facing our country and the world.”

“His failure to prepare is crippling our ability to respond,” Bloomberg added.

SUPER TUESDAY ON THEIR MINDS

Candidates are already looking beyond South Carolina to focus on Super Tuesday. Buttigieg announced a major get-out-the-vote effort in Super Tuesday states, including a California digital ad program and more than 350 mobilization events to reach voters across the state.

Bloomberg, who skipped the first three nominating states and is not running in South Carolina, was scheduled to hold three events in Super Tuesday states Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas on Thursday.

Sanders was due to hold events in Virginia and North Carolina, two other March 3 states, in addition to events in South Carolina.

Warren will also be in Texas before returning to South Carolina on Friday.

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