By Trevor Hunnicutt and Ginger Gibson
SPARTANBURG/NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – Presidential contender Joe Biden told South Carolina’s Democrats on Friday that they can take control of the White House if they pick “the right nominee” to face President Donald Trump.
“If you send me out of here with a victory that’s significant then I think I’m going to be the next nominee,” he said at Wofford College in Spartanburg. “We really can’t afford to let Donald Trump have four more years.”
It was a message of hope for Democrats who widely dislike the sitting president, but also for a campaign much in need of hope.
A win in South Carolina’s fourth-in-the-nation nominating contest on Saturday would be a big boost to Biden’s chances of being the Democratic nominee to run against Trump on Nov. 3. Biden faces candidates including front-runner Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist.
At a rally in North Charleston, Trump urged his Republican supporters to vote in the Democratic primary to ensure he faces the weakest possible opponent, which is allowed in South Carolina.
“Who the hell is easier to beat?” Trump asked of the crowd. He ultimately said the answer was Sanders.
Here’s what else happened on the campaign trail on Friday:
FIRST IN LINE
Before Trump took the stage in North Charleston, his fiercest supporters had been waiting for hours – even days.
Packing blankets, chairs and coolers, thousands waited to enter the rally, some of them having camped out to attend.
Richard Snowden was in his usual place – first in line. Dressed in a crisp suit and tie, the 68-year-old retired restaurant and nightclub businessman from Florida said he arrived on Tuesday for what would be his 66th Trump rally.
“I’m competitive, obviously. And I like being number one,” he said.
Trump decided to hold a rally here even though the state’s Republican Party canceled its nominating contest to ensure the president faced no opposition as he seeks re-election.
The evening marked the third Trump event for Snowden’s girlfriend, Trish Asselta, who said she’s already hooked.
“The energy that everyone portrays is just a feeling that you just can’t explain. I mean, he energizes everyone,” she said.
Earlier in the day, Biden, Sanders and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg joined the chorus of prominent Democrats criticizing the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, which expanded to six new countries and sent global stock markets tumbling again on Friday.
At a campaign event in Sumter, South Carolina, Biden accused Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who is overseeing the government response to the outbreak, of misleading the American public about the virus threat.
“Trump and Pence decided that the public health experts cannot inform the public on their own what’s going on,” Biden said. “Now the president won’t let other people tell the truth.”
Sanders slammed Trump for holding the North Charleston rally rather than remaining in Washington to address the situation.
“Why is he here? He’s here to try and disrupt the Democratic primary,” Sanders said in St. George. “How pathetic and how petty can you be?”
Bloomberg pointed to the sharp stock market drop as a sign of concern about Trump’s competence.
“The stock market has plunged partly out of fear (about the virus) but also because investors have no confidence that this president is capable of managing the crisis,” Bloomberg said in Memphis, Tennessee.
Bloomberg, a late entrant in the race for the White House, has not competed in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina, and is pinning his hopes on Super Tuesday nominating contests next week in Tennessee and 13 other states.
There are 62 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States, including people repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan, U.S. officials said.
COUNTING ON SOUTH CAROLINA
Biden continued to show signs of growing strength ahead of Saturday.
His campaign celebrated a $1.2 million one-day online fundraising haul, the most contributed by small-dollar internet donors since his campaign launch last year, when similar contributions added up to more than $6 million.
A Monmouth University poll released on Thursday showed Biden with heavy support from black South Carolina voters, who make up about 60% of the state’s Democratic electorate.
He was buoyed as well by an endorsement from U.S. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who was the 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee under Hillary Clinton. Virginia votes on Tuesday.
In Sumter, undecided voter Marybeth Berry, 44, told Biden that she sees a “fire” in some of his rivals and asked what drives him.
He responded “decency and honor” and added that he hates to see the “abuse of power” against vulnerable people.
Berry said she thought Biden’s answer was “very, very good” and “powerful,” and that she was leaning toward him after hearing him speak, but added she was also considering Sanders.
Her husband, Christopher, an Army veteran who met Biden when he served in Iraq, was already convinced. He voted for Trump in 2016 but is supporting Biden this time.
Biden had poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire and finished a distant second place in Nevada.
(Reporting by Ginger Gibson in North Charleston, S.C., Trevor Hunnicutt in Spartanburg, S.C., Katharine Jackson in North Charleston, S.C., Simon Lewis in Saint George, S.C., Joseph Ax in Greenville, S.C. and Jason Lange in Memphis; Writing by Sharon Bernstein and James Oliphant; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)