CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Former Vice President Joe Biden picked up the endorsement of a towering figure in South Carolina's African American political establishment Wednesday, giving him a crucial boost in the wake of a contentious candidate debate and as his rivals vied with him for support among black voters.
Rep. James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in the House, had been widely expected to back Biden but withheld his announcement until after Tuesday's debate in Charleston.
"I want the public to know that I'm voting for Joe Biden. South Carolinians should be voting for Joe Biden," said Clyburn, a longtime Biden ally, in an emotional statement. "This country is at an inflection point. It is time for us to restore this country's dignity -- this country's respect."
Saturday's primary is a must-win contest for Biden after his weak showings in the first three states to vote in Democrats' presidential nominating contest. African Americans, who make up two-thirds of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina, are central to Biden's electoral strategy. But their support has been eroding, and it would have been devastating had Clyburn defied expectations and not endorsed him.
Clyburn's backing also gives him access to one of the state's most powerful political machines, an especially valuable asset for a campaign like Biden's that has been struggling for resources.
"The fact that Jim Clyburn has a get-out-the-vote operation across this state is huge. We're talking about precinct captains, we're talking about poll managers," said Marlon Kimpson, a South Carolina state senator backing Biden. "The endorsement of Jim Clyburn puts a ground game second to none" at work for Biden, he said.
Accepting Clyburn's endorsement, Biden combined a plea to South Carolina voters with a touch of bravado: "If you send me out of South Carolina with a victory, there'll be no stopping us. We'll win the nomination; we'll win the presidency."
Polls show that billionaire Tom Steyer's concerted, self-funded effort to reach out to black voters in South Carolina has taken a toll. And as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has surged to front-runner status nationally, he has stepped up his efforts to contest the state, long regarded as a gimme for Biden.
While many South Carolina polls showed the race tightening, the latest, released Wednesday by Clemson University, was an encouraging snapshot for Biden: He was favored by 35% of likely Democratic voters, double the 17% that favored Steyer. Sanders drew 13%; former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren were tied at 8%.
The importance of black voters in South Carolina was spotlighted during Tuesday's debate, which included a more extensive discussion of racial injustice than in past debates -- even though all seven candidates on the stage were white.