BY JENNIFER EPSTEIN
WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden said he waited more than two weeks to apologize for comments about segregationist senators because he hadn’t had a chance to do so, even though the delay kept the controversy alive and might have cost him in some polls.
The former vice president addressed the issue directly on Saturday because it was “the first opportunity I had to do it in a fulsome way,” he told reporters Sunday, explaining that he wanted to speak in South Carolina — where Blacks account for 60% of the Democratic primary electorate — and in front of “an audience that in fact would be the most likely to have been offended by what was said.”
“If any comments I made were taken in a way that people took offense from them, then I am truly sorry for that. That was not my intention,” Biden said Sunday, echoing his remarks to a predominantly African-American crowd in Sumter a day earlier when he said he was “sorry for the pain and misconception I may have caused.”
Black voters account for about a fifth of the Democratic vote, and the South Carolina primary in February is the first next year with a predominantly Black electorate. A strong showing there often has foreshadowed enduring strength nationally with African Americans. The winner in South Carolina has gone on to win the Democratic nomination in four out of the past five contests.
The controversy erupted in mid-June after Biden recalled his Senate interactions with two prominent advocates of segregation, triggering criticism from two Black rivals for the presidency, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.
“He says he’s sorry, I’m going to take him at his word,” Harris, a California Senator, told reporters Sunday in Hartsville, South Carolina. “But again, that doesn’t address the issue of busing in America.”
“We cannot rewrite history about what segregationists were doing at that time on a number of issues,” she added.
Asked about Harris’s comments, Biden instead pointed to differences he has with her on other issues, such as health care. “I don’t want to do away with Obamacare and start all over and trash it,” he said.
Harris also offered implicit criticism of Biden’s reliance on his ties to former President Barack Obama, which he cited Saturday as a reason his record on race shouldn’t be questioned.
“When it comes time to pull the level and for people to actually vote in this presidential election, they’re going to make their decisions based not just on who we’re associated with, but they’re going to make their decisions based on the work we’ve done and, most importantly, our plans for the future of America,” she said.
Biden laughed when asked if he was too reliant on Obama’s reputation in selling himself to voters. “I say let’s talk about the future instead of talking about the past. That’s what I say,” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, Biden appeared at a town hall in Charleston hosted by state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who made the event’s only reference to the Harris-Biden split as he and voters in the audience asked about education, gun control and care for veterans.
Kimpson, who is holding town halls with many Democratic candidates, warned voters not to “fall prey to anyone’s attempt to manufacture a fight to drive media attention or to save a failing campaign.”
“I do not find it useful to relitigate issues from 1950 or 50 years ago or 25 years ago,” Kimpson said. “We’ve spent far too much time talking about the past” and candidate should be talking about the future.
Speaking a moment later, Biden said: “I find it really refreshing to talk about the future.”