SPARTANBURG, South Carolina—There’s a fleeting sense of hope surrounding Joe Biden these days, the kind that can be savored for just a moment before the harsh reality of the days ahead sinks in.
The kind that causes staffers to throw Joe Biden T-shirts to a cheering crowd as a man’s keytar music fills a gymnasium well before the candidate has even entered the room. The kind that makes the former vice president himself sound more than a little optimistic as he makes his closing pitch.
“You send me out of here with a victory that’s significant then I think I’m going to be the next nominee,” Biden told a crowd in Spartanburg Friday night.
Voters in South Carolina, even undecided ones, have a deep affection for Biden. And they take their memories of Biden’s past as a sign that he belongs in their future.
The comfort runs both ways. For at least a little while, Biden can enjoy not feeling like he has to explain to voters the reason he may fail or why he has yet to succeed, a stream of consciousness blip Biden couldn’t shake in between a rout in the Iowa caucuses and his freefall in the New Hampshire primary.
"I was worried about him" said Jack Scoville, the former mayor of Georgetown, South Carolina, who decided on the spot that he’d support Biden after seeing him in person earlier this week. "He wasn't doing that well leading up till now. And he may not do well Saturday. That's going to be a big deal if he doesn't."
Biden expects to win South Carolina. A primary night event in Columbia Saturday has all the markings of a long-sought-after 2020 victory party for the former vice president.
Though in some ways, it’s a no-win situation for Biden. Success in South Carolina is the expectation. Do well, and it can be shrugged off. Blow it, and the future’s bleak.
Even undecided voters friendly to Biden feel like he needs a resounding victory in South Carolina if he wants to place himself well for next week’s crucial Super Tuesday contests.
"If he can pick up South Carolina, do it (by) double digits coming out of South Carolina and show his enthusiasm toward the people of this country, then I think he can with this," said Richard White, a 67-year-old Democratic voter.
And whether he’ll actually win the nomination and beat President Donald Trump, well, that’s a question some voters here say they’ll stop and pray over.
Biden’s first event Friday didn’t feel like the day before a major electoral victory as much as business as usual for the former frontrunner. A community event in Sumter was intimate and sometimes emotional. A teleprompter set up in front of the podium vanished before he went on to speak. He wandered around the crowd, into the crowd, and back again.
When one undecided voter asked Biden "what is your fire," and brought up Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s energy, Biden did his best to spin his own case. For him, it starts with “decency and honor.”
"The fact that I'm not screaming like Bernie and waving my arms, or like Elizabeth, is not a lack of fire," Biden told her.
By nightfall at the event in Spartanburg, jubilance had set in, T-shirts and keytar included.
It was a stark contrast from this time three weeks ago when Biden couldn’t decide who he wanted to be. He wanted New Hampshire to be his comeback. Then he admitted on a national debate stage he’d “probably take a hit,” when the votes were tallied.
He didn’t want people to write him off, but when a woman asked him about his struggles in Iowa, he asked her if she’d ever been to a caucus and then called her “a lying dog-faced pony soldier.”
He capped his time in the state by having the first few moments of his rally on the eve of the primary ruined by a shouting protester. He asked the voters to stick with him, and before the polls closed the next day he had already fled the state for South Carolina.
Life’s only gotten better for Biden’s campaign since he left New Hampshire early. A second place Nevada finish reminded the faithful not to admit defeat just yet. South Carolina’s focused on spoiling the presidential contender with affection that was sorely lacking from the masses in the other early voting states this cycle.
Biden seems like he's coming into his stride again, said former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH). Biden had been avoiding getting into the fray as much, she said, but that's now changed.
"It's the Joe Biden that I have known for like 15 years," she said. "And I'm delighted to see it."
Biden's appeal in these final days of the South Carolina primary have been familiar notes. He's got experience. People here know him. He’s a sense of calm. His work on health care looms large for some. His close ties to President Barack Obama can also help make the difference. Fatigue with the once unwieldy Democratic field appears to have also taken a toll on some voters
The others are "just bickering," said Robert Long, a 76-year-old independent with an affinity for President Ronald Reagan and Pat Buchanan.
He doesn't think anyone else can beat Trump, even though Biden has yet to show he could top any of his Democratic primary rivals.
"It doesn't matter whether he's got a win or not," Long said. "He's the best man."
As Biden greeted fans after an event in Sumter, 74-year-old Edna Walters-Coleman said she’s praying Biden will win “for the sake of the country.”
A scenario where Biden may not be the Democratic nominee was not an idea the semi-retired beautician was willing to entertain.
"I'm not going to even think about that," she said. "That's not in my vocabulary that he's not going to be.”