COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA/WASHINGTON – Former Vice President Joe Biden decisively won the South Carolina primary on Saturday, reviving his flagging campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and casting him as the leading rival to frontrunner Bernie Sanders.
The victory was the 77-year-old Biden’s first in the race and may give him momentum going into “Super Tuesday” next week, when 14 states go to the polls.
“Just days ago the press and the pundits had declared this candidacy dead,” Biden told hundreds of cheering supporters at a victory rally in Columbia, the South Carolina capital.
“We’ve just won and we’ve won big. We are very much alive,” he said. “You’ve launched our campaign on the path to defeating Donald Trump.”
With 85 percent of the ballots counted in South Carolina, Biden had 48.5 percent of the vote.
Sanders, the 78-year-old left-wing senator from Vermont, was next with around 20 percent followed by billionaire activist Tom Steyer with around 11 percent.
Former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has been challenging Biden for the centrist vote, had around 8 percent while Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren had nearly 7 percent.
A South Carolina victory was seen as crucial to Biden in a state where he was counting on — and received — heavy support among African-American voters, who make up about 60 percent of the electorate.
Sanders has been the clear leader in the race having won both New Hampshire and Nevada and finishing in a virtual tie in Iowa with the 38-year-old Buttigieg.
Biden finished fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and second in Nevada and he desperately needed a win in South Carolina ahead of Super Tuesday.
One-third of the delegates who formally choose the Democratic nominee at the July party convention will be up for grabs on Super Tuesday.
“The biggest question is whether this will slingshot Joe Biden into victory in some Super Tuesday states,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Sabato said Biden’s win will also increase the pressure on the other centrist candidates to drop out of the race.
Steyer, who spent a whopping $23 million on advertising in South Carolina, announced following his disappointing third-place finish that he was ending his long-shot campaign for the nomination.
“I can’t see a path where I can win the presidency,” Steyer said.
But the other main contenders — Buttigieg, Warren, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and billionaire Michael Bloomberg — made it clear they would stick around at least through Super Tuesday.
“I’ll be the first to say that the first four contests haven’t gone exactly as I’d hoped,” Warren, who has been challenging Sanders for the progressive vote, told supporters at a campaign rally in Texas.
“Super Tuesday is three days away,” she added, “and we’re looking forward to these big contests.”
Sanders, speaking at a campaign rally in Virginia, one of the states voting on Tuesday, congratulated Biden on his victory.
“You cannot win ’em all,” he said. “I believe very strongly that the people on Super Tuesday and after are going to support this campaign.
“Because we are more than a campaign, we are a movement,” the self-described “democratic socialist” said. “We are a movement of millions of people.”
Sanders also dismissed Democratic establishment fears that he would lose against Trump, noting that dozens of polls have him beating the Republican incumbent.
Commenting on Twitter on the South Carolina results, Trump said Bloomberg should drop out.
“Sleepy Joe Biden’s victory in the South Carolina Democrat Primary should be the end of Mini Mike Bloomberg’s Joke of a campaign,” Trump tweeted. “Mini Mike now has Biden split up his very few voters, taking many away!”
The Bloomberg campaign noted, however, that the former New York mayor was not on the ballot in South Carolina and was counting on Super Tuesday.
“Mike is the only candidate to campaign in all fourteen Super Tuesday states over the last two months and we look forward to Tuesday,” it said in a statement.
Biden, who served for eight years as vice president to Barack Obama, America’s first black president, was the favorite in South Carolina, the first state with a substantial African-American electorate to hold a primary contest.
Betty Malone, a part-time realtor, attended the Biden victory rally and said she expected his South Carolina win would be followed by more victories in the coming week.
“I’m excited and I can’t wait for Super Tuesday to see him win all of those, every last one of those!” Malone said.
Despite his South Carolina victory, Biden and the other candidates may well face a Sanders buzzsaw on Super Tuesday.
Sanders is leading in the two biggest prizes, California and Texas.
He also tops polls in Super Tuesday states Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, Utah, Virginia, his home state of Vermont and Warren’s Massachusetts. Some of the races are tight.