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Clyburn poised to endorse Biden in big boost before S.C. primary

By Natasha Korecki, Heather Caygle, Marc Caputo and Laura Barrón-López

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who wields enormous influence in his home state of South Carolina, is planning to endorse Joe Biden on Wednesday, multiple sources with knowledge of the Democrat’s plans told POLITICO.

The planned endorsement is expected three days ahead of the state's Saturday primary, giving Biden an important boost in a state that will likely determine the fate of his candidacy. Clyburn, the highest ranking African American in Congress, has long been close with Biden and has been open about his affinity for the former vice president during the Democratic primary.

Several panicked Democrats, including one with direct knowledge of the planned endorsement, said they see it as a last-ditch effort to blunt Bernie Sanders’ momentum before he runs away with the nomination. But even among those Democratic lawmakers and aides, some are skeptical it will work, given the several other moderates still in the race who are splitting the anti-Sanders vote.

Clyburn was already considering formally backing Biden but the pressure intensified after Sanders’ landslide win in Nevada on Saturday night, according to two people familiar with the endorsement discussions.

“I will endorse Wednesday morning,” Clyburn said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. “I’m going to tell everybody who I’m going to vote for. I’m just not going to do it today.”

The Biden pitch for the endorsement is as much personal as it is practical. The two men have a friendship born of years working closely together, and Biden has let Clyburn know how badly he needs the endorsement, according to three top campaign sources.

"He’s going to wait until after the debate to give the endorsement. He promised the DNC it wouldn’t be before the debate," a Biden campaign adviser said of Clyburn.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, joined by his wife Jill Biden, right, and granddaughter Finnegan Biden, second from right, speaks during a caucus night event Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Clyburn’s help is crucial, given his stature in the state. The power of Clyburn’s endorsement isn’t lost on the local elected officials in his state, who have said that primary voters — two-thirds of the party’s electorate is African American — pay close attention to his lead.

Biden has publicly acknowledged South Carolina is a must-win state for him. Prevailing there would back up his oft-repeated message that he has strong support among African Americans, a base of the Democratic Party that swings elections, particularly in the Southeast.

A big South Carolina win, Biden’s campaign hopes, would provide a springboard into the run of states with influential black electorates, starting with Super Tuesday three days after the Palmetto State’s Feb. 29 primary.

“Nothing is certain until the big man says yes,” said another Biden advisor with knowledge of the discussions. “Clyburn is a kingmaker and he’s going to do this his way.”

The conversations with Clyburn centered on his ability to consolidate the African American electorate behind Biden, especially at a time when Sanders was closing the gap with black voters and Tom Steyer was already eating into Biden’s black support. The discussions also raised fears about Sanders’ influence on down ballot races, something Clyburn discussed in cable TV interviews Sunday morning.

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), Biden's campaign co-chair, said he's optimistic but not certain that Clyburn will endorse the former vice president.

"Congressman Clyburn is my mentor and one of my closest friends," Richmond said in a statement. "He has not indicated to me who he is going to endorse. I hope it's Joe Biden and know they have a relationship. He has said to me the future of the country is at stake, and if we lose to Donald Trump, it would be devastating for generations of African-Americans to come. And I know that's what he's thinking about when making this important decision."

In January, Clyburn made a sudden stop at a Biden surrogate event in Columbia, South Carolina, swinging by his local barbershop after hours as the campaign held a conversation with black men in the community.

“We have to think of this election in more than presidential terms,” Clyburn said to more than a dozen black men at Toliver’s Mane Event barbershop, which Clyburn frequents. “Because when you go to the polls in November ... my name is going to be on the ballot. So when you tell me, you got such a big problem with who the Democratic nominee is for president that you aren't going to vote that means you ain't voting for me — that's what that means.”

For weeks Clyburn would not say definitively whether he planned to publicly back a specific candidate ahead of his state's primary, only saying if he did so it would be after Tuesday’s debate. Clyburn’s office did not return a request for comment.

Some senior Democrats said privately it wasn’t guaranteed Clyburn would endorse Biden, given his poor showing in Iowa and New Hampshire and the criticism Clyburn would surely face for doing so.

“I do know, in my heart and in my head, who I’m for,” Clyburn said two weeks ago. “If I believe my constituents need to hear my vision, as to what candidate will be best to vote for on Feb. 29, I will do that, I will let that be known."

But in recent weeks, senior congressional Democrats and moderates representing Republican-leaning districts have watched with alarm as Sanders cemented his frontrunner status.

That alarm reached a crescendo after Sanders trounced the field in Nevada, with Biden placing in a distant second.

Democratic lawmakers who believe nominating Sanders would guarantee defeat in November have been privately discussing ways to stop the self-avowed democratic socialist.

“I do believe it will be an extra burden for us to have to carry. This is South Carolina, and South Carolinians are pretty leery about that title socialist,” Clyburn said Sunday on ABC’s This Week.