Former Vice President Joe Biden made his first stop of his presidential campaign on Saturday to connect with African American voters in Columbia, South Carolina — a group that represents a large component of the Democratic electorate in that region — with a strong message.
“Above all else, we must defeat Donald Trump,” said Biden to the crowd at Hyatt Park Community Center in Columbia, South Carolina's Eau Claire neighborhood. “We have to uplift communities that are in fact in poverty we have to do it and we have to do it now because by the way it would go a whole hell of a long way toward ending the legacy of systemic racism."
South Carolina is also a state and a voting bloc that could prove critical if he hopes to capitalize on the type of multicultural support that helped President Barack Obama win the White House.
“By the way he’s a hell of a guy. Over eight years I watched him. He has enormous integrity. Nobody I ever worked with is smarter. He’s a decent, decent decent man. And folks I think he’s one of the best presidents we’ve ever ever had,” Biden said in reference to Obama
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who’s known as a political kingmaker in the state said so far, Biden is the candidate to beat.
“I have talked to people here in South Carolina, and I believe that at this point in time Joe Biden is probably the leader,” Clyburn previously said on ABC’s This Week Sunday morning.
Biden has long ties to the Palmetto state due, in large part, to his friendships with late Senators Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings.
Just weeks before Biden entered the 2020 race, the former vice president was in South Carolina to eulogize Hollings, whom Biden credited with convincing him to stay in the Senate after suffering the loss of his first wife and infant daughter in a car accident in 1972.
“I’m Joe Biden from Delaware, by way of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and because of Fritz Hollings, by way of South Carolina” Biden said in his eulogy.
Biden also campaigned for several candidates in the state in the 2018 midterm elections – including gubernatorial candidate James Smith and Biden’s longtime adviser Dick Harpootlian for the state Senate.
On Saturday evening, Biden attended a private fundraiser at the home of Harpootlian, an attorney and former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman.
Biden, according to a print pool report, told those in attendance at the fundraiser that since President Donald Trump took office, “at least 14 heads of state contact me, including very, very conservative heads of state.” He added that British Prime Minister Theresa May invited him to England to speak on American foreign policy -- a matter of subject expertise for the former vice president.
Biden arrives in South Carolina with the wind at his back and early frontrunner status in several polls including a poll conducted by SSRS for CNN on the Thursday after he announced which showed 39% of Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents say his is their top pick for the party's nomination. In that poll, he is at least 20 point ahead of his nearest rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.
On healthcare, Biden called for a public option, but praised the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Biden also said that he will be the president to call for more research into not only cancer, but other diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“Restore the Affordable Care Act, add to it and we have to make sure that everyone whether they have private insurance, insurance through their employer or no insurance at all they’re able to buy into a Medicare-like plan," Biden said.
Biden enters as the early frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, albeit with a decided tilt toward older voters that could define the party’s 2020 contest as a generational showdown. In an open-ended question, 17% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents back Biden, with 11% for Sanders, 5% for Pete Buttigieg, 4% apiece for Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren and 1 or 2% for Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and non-candidates Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.
Biden's campaign will focus on three major pillars – rebuilding the middle class, "the backbone of this country"; demonstrating respected leadership on the world stage; and making democracy more inclusive, by fixing campaign finance, voting rights, and gerrymandering.
Over the next few weeks, Biden will take that message on the road to early voting states, including his visit earlier this week to Iowa, this weekend's trip to South Carolina and upcoming treks to Nevada, California and New Hampshire, before returning to Pennsylvania for a final kickoff event on May 18 in Philadelphia, with remarks focusing on 'Unifying America,' according to Biden's campaign website.
The crowded Democratic field has hit the state heavily over the past few months including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who won roughly 14 percent of black voters in South Carolina during the Democratic primary. His rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, won 86 percent of the black vote in the state.
Biden has cast the upcoming elections as a "battle for the soul of America."
During the fundraiser on Saturday, Biden laid out his reasons for running and cited the deadly clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va. in August 2017 a key factor. Biden criticized Trump saying he could never recall an instance where a president referred to "decent people on both sides” of such an event.
Biden also told a story at the fundraiser about his grandchildren playing a role in urging him to run for president. Biden said one of his grandsons, “Little Hunter” told him he had to run.
“My generic point is they know how tough it’s going to be,” Biden said.
ABC News' Beatrice Peterson and Averi Harper contributed to this report.