(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden and Donald Trump will face the greatest tests yet of their political strength starting this week in South Carolina, as the two men hurtle toward a general election rematch.
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The president is not expected to directly cross paths with his predecessor in the Palmetto State, but each is expected to spend significant time there over the next month to hone their attacks against one another and appeal to voters.
For Trump, the goal is more practical: A win in the Feb. 24 South Carolina primary would deliver a fatal blow to challenger Nikki Haley in her home state, allowing him to fully shift his focus toward Biden. Democrats are holding their primary on Feb. 3 and while Biden is certain to win big, he is using the race as a chance to quiet his critics and demonstrate strength among key voter groups.
Trump’s back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire have prompted Biden to accelerate his campaign and try to reverse dim perceptions of his leadership. Biden is traveling to South Carolina on Saturday to rally Black voters, a major part of the electorate there and a bloc with which the president’s support has eroded.
Biden and Trump’s performance in South Carolina will provide hints about the state of the 2024 race that will determine US policy on the economy, border security, abortion rights and the nation’s role in the world.
“Success in November depends more upon a voting demographic like you find in South Carolina, than that which you would find in Iowa or New Hampshire,” said Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democratic congressman whose endorsement of Biden four years ago vaulted him to the presidency.
South Carolina is where the first shots of the Civil War were fired and has long been a conservative Republican bastion. But it’s also a place that holds outsize importance in Biden’s political lore.
After three straight losses that put his 2020 presidential campaign on life support, Biden’s victory in the state’s Democratic primary on the strength of widespread Black voter support revived his bid. Biden moved South Carolina to the front of the line in his party’s 2024 primary, snubbing Iowa and New Hampshire, which have voted first for decades.
Biden’s focus on South Carolina is aimed in part at reaching Black voters nationally, a person familiar with the plans said. The Biden campaign is treating Black voters as a group that needs persuading early, rather than a part of the base it will look to turn out later in the process, the person said.
Biden’s attendance at a political dinner this weekend follows a visit earlier this month to Mother Emanuel AME Church, a historically Black congregation where a White supremacist killed nine people in 2015. Vice President Kamala Harris has visited the state twice in January and plans to go again before the primary, according to a person familiar with her schedule.
Enthusiasm for Biden has waned among Black voters, polls show, and Trump has looked to make inroads. Trump won 12% of the Black vote nationwide in 2020, up from 8% in 2016, according to exit polls.
“The president and the vice president’s trips to South Carolina, they aren’t from a place of worry,” Quentin Fulks, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, told reporters. “They’re a place of practicing what we preach.”
A surge of newcomers from out of state and a growing automotive sector are shifting a South Carolina economy still dogged by some of the lowest incomes in America. South Carolina’s jobless rate fell 0.3 percentage points in the past year, bringing it to just 3%, comfortably below the US’s 3.7% rate — arming Biden with a talking point for courting the state’s voters.
That’s if Biden can get them to pay attention. Democrats have privately expressed concern to the White House that the president has not broken through, fears that his closest supporters downplay.
“I keep telling people all the time, ‘Come on. Do you want to make a headline, or do you want to make headway?’ Joe Biden is not in the business of making headlines. That’s Trump,” Clyburn said.
Biden’s message is also designed to reverberate in neighboring Georgia and North Carolina, which share similar demographics. Georgia is a crucial swing state where Biden won in 2020, while North Carolina is a red state Democrats have long looked to flip.
“The South is going to be the new battleground when it comes to the map,” said Kara Turrentine, Democratic strategist at the Pivot Group.
Meanwhile, Trump is looking to deliver Haley an embarrassing defeat in the state where she was governor from 2011 to 2017. A loss would undercut Haley’s claim that there is appetite among Republican voters for a Trump alternative and that she is best-suited for that role.
It would also make a show of strength that Trump is entering the general election with the GOP coalesced around him. The former president’s campaign has built a large operation in South Carolina, complete with 1,500 volunteers.
“There’s no real competition to President Trump in South Carolina, but that’s not the attitude we’re taking,” Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller said in an interview.
While Haley’s backers have promised a multimillion-dollar ad blitz in the state, and the candidate has scheduled several campaign stops, it’s possible she could drop out before voting starts if her wealthy donors decide she does not have a path to winning the nomination.
Former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly, who is unaffiliated with any campaign, said he was surprised Haley’s operation in the state has not made a bigger showing.
“Our state is bigger than it looks and you can’t really canvass the state quickly,” Connelly said.
Haley is relying on South Carolina’s open primary rules to appeal to undeclared voters and is committed to meeting voters of all stripes on the ground, campaign manager Betsy Ankney said in a Bloomberg News roundtable.
--With assistance from Bill Allison, Hadriana Lowenkron, Michael Sasso and Alex Tanzi.
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