CHARLESTON, S.C. — The morning after former vice president Joe Biden expressed regret for his comments about working with segregationists, he sat in the Morris Brown AME Church here, eyes fixed on the Rev. Thomas Nesbitt III.
Nesbitt was leading the congregation in prayer. Then, he paused.
“God, if you would just allow me to say these few words,” Nesbitt said. “We want to thank Vice President Biden for apologizing. We want to thank him for having the courage to apologize.”
Nesbitt didn’t linger on the issue. But Biden’s civil rights record followed the candidate as he campaigned in South Carolina on Sunday. And though many of his supporters brushed it off, questions linger about whether the former vice president, who is polling well in the state, will be able to mobilize its largely African American electorate in the primary next year.
Throughout the day, the 76-year-old candidate tried to cast himself as more accessible, breaking from his norm to speak directly with voters as he urged them — and the media — to move on.
“I say let’s talk about the future instead of talking about the past,” he said Sunday. “That is what this is all about.”
Biden ignited the conversation about his civil rights record a few weeks ago, when he highlighted his work with segregationist senators at a fundraiser. Since then, he’s been forced onto the defensive, criticized by his Democratic primary opponents for those remarks, as well as for his opposition to federally mandated busing when he was a young senator from Delaware.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) brought that issue to a national stage when she pressed Biden on his past positions in a heated encounter during a debate last month. She called his remarks personally “hurtful” to her, as someone who benefited from a voluntary busing program as a girl. Since then, the two campaigns have feuded on Twitter.
On Saturday, Biden tried to put the criticism behind him. In a speech, he offered not only regret but a full-throated defense of his record. On Sunday, Biden hit some of the same notes, apologizing again in response to a reporter’s question about why he had waited so long to do so in the first place.
“It’s the first opportunity I’ve had to do it in a fulsome way,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, that’s why I chose South Carolina and chose an audience that would be the most likely to have been offended by what was said.”
As it happened, many of those who came to see Biden on Sunday did not seem offended at all.
“I don’t buy all the negativity about his past because all I’ve seen him do is work for the common good,” said Virginia King, a 63-year-old Charleston resident who attended Biden’s town hall on Sunday.
“I think [Harris] felt she had a duty to expose what she felt was a black mark on his record, but for the most part, I don’t think that he had done anything wrong,” she said. “I think back in those days where there were segregationists, you had to do what you had to do to get your message across.”
When South Carolina state Sen. Marlon Kimpson introduced Biden to a crowd gathered for his afternoon town hall, he provided a fiery dismissal of the controversy.
“Do not fall prey to anyone’s attempt to manufacture a fight, to drive media attention or to save a failing campaign,” Kimpson said, making a not-so-veiled reference to Harris. “We have to be very, very focused on the issues that matter.”
When the Rev. James Keeton Jr. introduced Biden to the congregation at Morris Brown, he offered a more subtle vote of confidence.
Biden is “somebody who understands the importance of working across the aisle, somebody who understands the importance of working with people who might not believe what you do,” Keeton said, to plenty of nods and yeses from those in the pews.
Then Biden spoke briefly, describing the election in his usual way, as “a battle for the soul of America.”
He also spoke about visiting Mother Emanuel AME Church after a gunman killed nine people there in 2015 and how after visiting with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, he went back himself to worship the next day.
“I was absolutely dumbfounded by the generosity and Christian spirit of those parishioners,” Biden said. “They forgave that white supremacist. I needed some of that grace . . . just seven months earlier, I had lost my son. I needed encouragement, and I found it.”
Biden has regularly brought up Obama as a way to deflect criticism of his civil rights record. In his Saturday speech, he touted the fact that he was “vetted by [Obama] and selected by him.”
“I will take his judgment of my record, my character and my ability to handle the job over anyone else’s,” he said.
On Sunday, Christopher German, a third-generation longshoreman who campaigned for Obama twice, said Biden’s history with Obama means “I trust him.”
“I’m in favor of [Biden] because, while we will need someone younger, he can get the ideas started so we can carry on,” German said.
On Sunday, a reporter asked Biden what he would say to those who criticize him for leaning too hard on his work with Obama.
The former vice president laughed, then said he’s ready to move on.
“I’m ready to debate health care and Obamacare and the best way to go on immigration and climate change,” Biden said. “That’s what I want to debate.”
As Biden answered questions from reporters, Harris was wrapping up a similar session across the state in Hartsville.
“He says he’s sorry. I’m going to take him at his word,” Harris said. “But that doesn’t address the issue of busing in America. . . . We cannot rewrite history about what segregationists were doing at that time on a number of issues.”
Harris also told reporters she still feels she has differences with Biden, particularly about the issue of busing.
Biden, in his own comments to reporters, agreed that divides lingered between the two. But he pointed to policy, not his past, as the reason for the split. He said he wants to improve the Affordable Care Act, while Harris wants to “start all over.” Harris has signed on to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-all bill, which would transition all Americans to a single-payer system.
“We have real differences,” Biden said. “Let’s debate them. We have differences on health care. We have differences on the environment. We have differences on a number of things.”
Linda Reinstein, a 55-year-old software company director, said she came to see Biden to hear what he had to say on health care, her main campaign concern. She said she hasn’t made up her mind on a candidate yet.
As she watched the debates, she felt Biden “should have been prepared” for Harris’s critique. But nothing about his performance, she said, changed the fact that she still thinks Biden can beat President Trump.
“I think [Biden] was soft because he was with his fellow Democrats,” Reinstein said. “What I would do right now, if I were the head of the Democratic Party, I would tell everyone to cool it.”