CHARLESTON — Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has apologized for comments about working with segregationist lawmakers in his early days in the U.S. Senate and says he now understands that his remarks could have offended some people.
"Was I wrong a few weeks ago?" the former vice president and Delaware senator asked a mostly black audience of several hundred people in Sumter during the first day of a weekend visit to South Carolina. "Yes, I was. I regret it, and I'm sorry for any of the pain of misconception that caused anybody."
At a Charleston restaurant on Sunday, he explained that he picked South Carolina as the place where he would apologize, wanting to choose "an audience that would in fact be most likely to have been offended" by the comments.
It's first Southern state to vote in next year's primary and a crucial proving ground for candidates seeking support of black Democrats.
One of his 2020 rivals, California Sen. Kamala Harris, said during a stop in Hartsville that Biden was "right to recognize the impact of his words" and she praised him for "having the courage to do it."
In last month's presidential debate, Harris was unrelenting in her criticism of Biden, both his views on federally mandated busing and his comments about working with segregationist senators long ago. Harris is one of two black candidates in the contest.
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Though the issue is not at the forefront of the 2020 primary, it could resonate in a state with a complicated history with race and segregation.
Biden is defending his record on racial issues and reminded voters of his ties to former President Barack Obama, whose popularity in South Carolina remains high. Harris countered by saying voters are "going to make their decisions based not just on who they were associated with, but ... the work we've done, and most importantly our plans for the future of America."
Several Harris supporters in the state said her pointed and personal critique of Biden, who opposed busing mandates in the 1970s, struck a chord in South Carolina.
The campaign dynamics have shifted and become more personal since the last time Biden and Harris were in South Carolina.
Harris muddied the debate over busing during a recent campaign swing in Iowa, appearing to tell reporters she now opposes federally mandated busing to address school segregation. Her campaign disputed the notion that she was backtracking from the position she took during the debate, arguing that she supported busing in the 1970s — when Biden opposed it — but believes conditions now make it an issue to be decided by local school districts.
During an appearance Saturday at Essence Fest in New Orleans, an annual music and cultural conference that is the largest gathering of black women in the country, Harris pledged to fight the segregation that she said lingers today.
"There's still mandatory busing that exists today," Harris said. "Because we had so much flight. ... Segregation persists now not necessarily as a function of legislator. ... But just because there has been a drawing out of the resources in public schools. That is one of my highest priorities, and we have got to deal with that."