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COLUMBIA, S.C. —Twenty of his rivals have lined up to run for president, believing the race for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination was wide open. But one week after launching his campaign, former Vice President Joe Biden is threatening to prove them wrong.
His liabilities may be glaring, but the 76-year-old lifelong politician has quickly emerged as the front-runner in the crowded contest by dominating the debate that matters most to many voters: electability.
Biden's chief opponents privately concede that, for now at least, he has successfully cast himself as the candidate who can take down President Donald Trump. He may be out of step with the heart of the party on key issues, but Biden opens the race backed by a broad coalition of voters attracted to his personality, his governing experience and his working-class background — all elements that help convince voters he is better positioned than any other Democrat to deny Trump a second term.
One after another, voters who filled a community center in South Carolina's capital to see Biden this weekend described him as a safe, comforting and competent counterpoint to the turbulent Trump presidency.
"With him you feel whole, and the country would be whole again," said 62-year-old Barbara Pearson, who is African American and has long worked for county government. "I think he meets this moment."
"I like Biden," said 21-year-old University of South Carolina senior Justin Walker, who is white. "We know him. We know where he's been. We don't know that about the others."
Biden's strong start, evidenced by strong fundraising and polling, has caught the attention of his opponents. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have already begun to turn on Biden, at least subtly, highlighting his reliance on rich donors and his record on trade, foreign policy and health care that is out of step with the party's more liberal wing.
"Obviously the vice president has had a very good first week," Sanders' chief strategist Jeff Weaver said. "This is an incredibly long campaign. And I think as voters see the contrasts between the candidates on both a policy level and an electability level, you're going to see wild swings in these numbers."
In the midst of his inaugural national tour as a 2020 presidential contender, Biden is largely ignoring his Democratic opponents and focusing on Trump.
"Another four years of Trump," Biden told South Carolina voters, would "fundamentally change the character of this nation.''
"Above all else, we must defeat Donald Trump," he declared.
So far, at least, the message appears to be resonating.
John Anzalone, a veteran Democratic pollster who has advised Biden, highlighted the breadth of his early support, which touches on virtually every key Democratic voting bloc.
"People don't understand the foundation of his support," he said. "He leads with every demographic."
Polls by CNN and Quinnipiac University over the last week show Biden with significant advantages among whites and nonwhites, those over and under 50 years old, non-college graduates and college graduates, those who make more and those who make less than $50,000 each year, and both moderate and liberal Democrats.
Biden's fast start comes amid vocal concerns from energized liberal activists, who believe he's not aligned with the Democratic base.
He has refused to endorse "Medicare for All," a national program that would guarantee health insurance for every American, preferring to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's health care law, and allow people to select a "public option" featuring Medicare-style coverage. He has also refused to back away from his support for trade deals, none more significant than the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has become unpopular among liberals and conservatives alike.
Rival campaigns suggest Biden's record on trade could undermine his popularity with working-class voters in key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Should his perceived strength in the Midwest fade, his electability argument could fade as well.
Biden's skeptics in both parties believe that above all, his performance while campaigning will determine whether he maintains his early strength. Few have confidence it will last.
Biden has a well-known propensity for verbal gaffes. And being closer to 80 than 70, he shows his age at times. He rambled through parts of his Saturday address, losing his train of thought and the audience more than once.
In just the last week, he has been mocked for downplaying the threat from China. He also muddled his initial effort to apologize to Anita Hill, whom he forced through aggressive questioning from an all-male Senate panel after she accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment nearly three decades ago.
"I think he's the front-runner, but it would be a mistake to think that is going to last," said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a South Carolina Democratic state representative and president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
For one thing, she said, the African American vote will be fractured in 2020 given the presence of several candidates of color. At the Columbia rally on Saturday, many voters cited California Sen. Kamala Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, as a top choice behind Biden.
While skeptical of his staying power, Cobb-Hunter acknowledged Biden's early advantage on the electability argument.
"What he does have going for him is a real solid belief he can take out Trump," she said. "Biden so far has that aura.''
A big part of the aura comes from stronger-than-expected fundraising.
In the weeks before his announcement, Biden's team aggressively fretted about his ability to raise money. So when he bested his rivals by raising $6.3 million in his first 24 hours as a candidate, the political class was impressed.
Supporters say it was a textbook example of managing expectations, belied by the fact that aides were building a professional campaign with a deep fundraising network drawing on his connection to Obama.
"The way he launched his campaign was exactly the way you would have historically launched: Managing expectations and then blowing them out of the water," said Rufus Gifford, Obama's former finance director.
Yet his supporters, like his rivals, are acutely aware that the campaign has barely begun.
"Joe Biden is currently the front-runner. Obviously, if you are in that position you become more of a target," said Biden donor Jon Cooper of New York. "We all realize that the hard work is ahead of us."