Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden takes selfies with people in the crowd after a South Carolina campaign launch party on February 11, 2020, in Columbia, South Carolina.
Columbia, South Carolina CNN  — 

After a few hymns, two Scripture readings and a rousing gospel song from the choir, Malcolm Kenyatta took the microphone at Reid Chapel AME Church here on a recent Sunday to address more worldly affairs: the state’s fast-approaching Democratic presidential primary.

“If you’ve been paying attention, some people are saying that this election is over, but I think if we just hold on a little bit longer, the folks of South Carolina are going to have something to say,” said Kenyatta, a Pennsylvania state representative who supports Joe Biden.

“When you see millionaires and billionaires that are able to buy your attention, don’t just look at the 30-second ad,” Kenyatta implored, his voice rising though the sanctuary. “Look at 30 years of history.”

Kenyatta’s urgent pleas underscore just how much Biden and his allies are relying on South Carolina and black voters like those at Reid Chapel to revive the former vice president’s faltering campaign following losses in Iowa and New Hampshire – and how much competition he now faces for their support.

Once the Nevada caucuses end on Saturday, the political world’s attention will shift to the Palmetto State, which holds its primary on February 29. The leading Democratic candidates are set to debate Tuesday night in Charleston.

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Biden has made South Carolina – and mobilizing the black voters who could make up as much as two-thirds of the electorate here – the centerpiece of his third bid for the presidency. And in the run-up to the early contests, support from African Americans voters helped make Biden the early front-runner among Democrats. But as the primary battle turns to South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states that quickly follow on March 3, his rivals are scrambling to chip away at the central argument of his candidacy: that he’s best equipped to build the diverse coalitions needed to beat President Donald Trump in November.

This week, Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders launched his first South Carolina ad, touting the endorsement of an African American elected official who had previously supported Biden. In the 30-second commercial, Richland County Council member Dahli Myers said she had switched allegiances because she believes Sanders can stir the voter enthusiasm needed to seize the White House in November.

“I want to see the kind of lines around the building that we saw in 2008,” she said, referring to the year Barack Obama won the South Carolina primary and became the nation’s first black president.

California billionaire Tom Steyer also is working to make inroads within the African American community. He has invested heavily in South Carolina, running roughly $20 million in advertising – nearly nine times the spending of his closest competitor in the state’s ad wars, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, according to a tally by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. In addition, Steyer’s wife, Kat Taylor, left her post overseeing a community bank the couple founded in California to relocate to South Carolina and campaign full time on his behalf.

Buttigieg, who has struggled to attract the black voters who make up the base of the Democratic Party, has run commercials featuring the descendants of prominent South Carolinians – Walter Clyburn Reed, the grandson of the highest-ranking African American in the House, Rep. Jim Clyburn; and Abe Jenkins, the grandson of late civil rights activist Esau Jenkins. Both men are working for his campaign.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has a much smaller war chest than many of her rivals, also has worked to build support among African American voters. In recent weeks, she deployed one of her most prominent black supporters, Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, to fire up volunteers and speak to students at Benedict College, a historically black college here in Columbia. Musician John Legend is slated to campaign on her behalf in the state next week.

A new super PAC supporting Amy Klobuchar recently placed nearly $825,000 in ads on airwaves in South Carolina to assist the senator from Minnesota, who has trailed many of her rivals in fundraising.

‘Extremely fluid’ race

Democratic presidential candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden, left, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, right, march down Main St. to the King Day at the Dome event on January 20, 2020, in Columbia, South Carolina.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed eroding support for Biden among African American voters nationally. The former vice president had the backing of 27% of black voters surveyed earlier this month, down from 51% in December. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has overwhelmed his rivals with record-breaking ad spending, had surged to 22%, second place, in the February Quinnipiac poll.

Bloomberg, who has skipped the first four states on the nomination calendar, is not on the ballot in South Carolina.

A poll out Thursday of Democratic likely voters in South Carolina found Biden and Sanders, who had a strong finish in Iowa and won in New Hampshire, battling for top place in the state. But Biden still held a wide advantage among black likely voters: Forty-three percent backed him. Sanders’ black support stood at 20% and Steyer’s at 19%, according to the poll conducted by the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

Clyburn, who has not yet made a public endorsement in the race, recently said he doesn’t know whether Biden can pull off a win. “I think there’s a lot of activity taking place here, and we are going to have a very spirited contest,” Clyburn said recently on CNN.

“South Carolina is extremely fluid,” said Trav Robertson, the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party and a veteran campaign strategist. “The African American community is no longer a monolithic voting bloc.”

Sanders, Robertson said, has extensive infrastructure on the ground, through Our Revolution, an outside group he helped found. And Steyer and his wife, Taylor, are known in the African American business community through their longtime investment in a black-owned bank.

“Older African Americans may be with Vice President Biden,” he said. “The question is whether that’s out of undying support for him and his positions or out of name ID and loyalty to Barack Obama’s vice president.”

Tracy Pickett, a 39-year-old elementary school principal, sits on one side of a generational divide. Her mother, she says, backs Biden because she thinks he has “the personality to run against Trump and spar with him.”

But Pickett, who was among the congregants listening to Kenyatta’s pitch at Reid Chapel, said she’s leaning toward Warren – attracted by the senator’s college-loan forgiveness plan. Pickett, who has a doctoral degree, says her monthly student-loan payments now exceed her mortgage payments.

“I like Biden,” she said. But she was drawn to Warren because “when she talks about her policies, she actually gives you specific plans.”

“And, honestly, I want to see a woman in the White House,” Pickett added.

Steyer as spoiler?

Democratic presidential hopeful Tom Steyer speaks at a campaign town hall event, Monday, February 10, 2020, in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Of the 14 states that will cast ballots on Super Tuesday, half of them – Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia – are in the South. Collectively, African Americans account for nearly 16% of the populations of those seven states, and Latinos nearly 22%, according to the Brookings Institution.

The Steyer campaign is all-in on South Carolina because the state “is deeply representative of the rest of the country,” Taylor said in an interview in the large stucco home she has rented in a hilly Columbia neighborhood near the University of South Carolina campus. “As South Carolina goes, so do a lot of other Southern states.”

This week, Steyer’s campaign placed nearly $6.5 million in new ad reservations in six of the Southern states that vote on Super Tuesday.

Meeting with reporters during an open house she hosted for supporters last Sunday, Taylor stressed the credentials she believes will carry weight with the African American community. She ticked off the couple’s $110 million investment in the community bank they founded in Oakland, California; Steyer’s spending to end the cash bail system in California; and his financial support for Andrew Gillum’s unsuccessful campaign in 2018 to become Florida’s first black governor.

In his effort to win over black voters, Steyer has hired African American state lawmakers as advisers and built a substantial staff. He now employs more than 100 people in South Carolina, 93% of whom are African Americans and 70% of whom are women, says Jonathan Metcalf, a veteran of Obama’s 2008 campaign who serves as Steyer’s state director.

By comparison, Biden aides say they have recently increased their staff to “more than 60” in the state.

Interviews with voters illustrate the reach of the campaign operations of Steyer and Sanders. Many residents report receiving multiple mailers from Steyer’s campaign and invitations to his events, along with visits from Sanders’ volunteers, who are going door to door to turn out voters.

“A lot of people have been coming around for Steyer and Sanders,” said Latrina Reid, a 45-year-old African American homemaker who lives in North Charleston. She’s met Steyer and supports him, based in part on his early activism calling for Trump’s impeachment. (Before entering the presidential race, the billionaire founded Need to Impeach, a group that lobbied for Trump’s removal long before the House impeached the President in December.)

“Every day that Trump is President, I’m afraid he’s going to start another world war,” Reid said. She said Sanders is a close second choice.

“Sanders is a feisty old coot, I have to give it to him,” she added, laughing. “He’s persistent, and he doesn’t back down.”

Personal touch

Biden’s team say they are counting on the former vice president’s long ties to South Carolinians to boost him in the primary.

“Relationships count,” Kendall Corley, his campaign’s state director, said in an interview this week. “Good manners and good relationships can get you places that money can’t get you.”

A few blocks away from Latrina Reid’s home in North Charleston, Jill Biden spent part of the Presidents Day holiday reminding voters about her family’s association with the state. A few weeks after Beau Biden, Joe Biden’s older son, died of brain cancer, the family retreated in 2015 to a barrier island not far from Charleston – something both Bidens have written about in their memoirs.

“We found respite on your shores,” Biden told a group of about three dozen people who crowded into a fellowship hall at the Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church. And during the nearly hourlong session, billed as a roundtable with educators, Biden repeatedly told the supportive crowd that they could trust her husband to look out for their interests.

“His heart is with the teachers,” Biden said at one point. “You don’t even have to question that. You don’t have to worry about that. You don’t even have to think about it ‘cause you know his heart is there.”

During her speech, a Biden campaign volunteer, Thomasina “Tomi” Greene, repeatedly broke in with applause and chants of “Go, go! Joe, Joe!”

The 70-year-old retired radio disc jockey has her own history with the Bidens: She met Joe Biden last August and bonded with him as she talked about battling her Stage 4 cancer, now in remission.

When her 92-year-old mother died last December, the Bidens called and sent flowers, Greene said. “They are the most compassionate people I have ever met. I’m just an average person. For them to take that time out for me,” she said, her voice trailing off.

State Sen. David Mack, a longtime legislator from North Charleston who joined Jill Biden on her swing through the city, said Joe Biden’s fourth- and fifth-place showings in Iowa and New Hampshire weren’t “something we were jumping up and down happy about.”

But Mack said he’s “optimistic” about Biden’s chances as the nomination battle moves to friendlier terrain. “The race really begins now.”

This story has been updated to add that John Legend is scheduled to campaign for Elizabeth Warren in South Carolina.

CNN’s David Wright contributed to this report.