COLUMBIA, S.C. — In what was supposed to be a strictly celebratory event launching President Biden’s glide path to the Democratic presidential nomination here, long-shot primary challenger Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) sought to appeal to the crowd with a somber warning.
Speaking minutes before Biden was set to take the stage here at the First-in-the-Nation Dinner on Saturday, Phillips warned the gathered Democrats that Biden’s low poll numbers and weak political standing threatened to let former president Donald Trump back into the White House.
“I’m here to tell you the numbers do not say things are looking good,” Phillips said from the stage, as Democratic officials milled about the hall. Phillips received some light applause after his remarks, which he had to stop at one point to try to get the attention of people who were not listening.
“So my invitation to President Biden — a man I love, a man I respect, a man who saved this country, a man who did a lot of good in the last four years — my invitation to President Biden is to pass the torch to a new generation ready to take the stage.”
The comments from Phillips stood as a brief aberration from what was largely — outside of a few outbursts from pro-Palestinian protesters during Biden’s speech — a show of unified support for the president in a state that helped launch him into the presidency in 2020.
Biden was showered with praise by every other speaker on the program, including during a lengthy introduction from Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who touted his record and called him “a great president” and “a president with compassion.” Biden campaign officials said the president was visiting the state to demonstrate his commitment to Black voters, who make up a majority of Democrats in the state.
During his remarks, Biden boasted of strong economic growth under his watch, focusing specifically on progress for Black voters.
“All the progress we’ve made comes down to a simple proposition: promises made, and promises kept,” Biden said. He repeated the phrase multiple times as he outlined various parts of his record in what amounted to a rebuttal to critics who question whether Biden’s presidency has delivered for Black Americans.
He also used his remarks to ramp up his attacks on Trump, repeatedly calling the former president a “loser.” Biden grew visibly angry as he referred to alleged remarks Trump made disparaging U.S. troops after he abandoned a plan to visit an American cemetery in Paris in 2018, for reasons that Trump said involved poor weather.
Trump has denied the allegation that he referred to troops as “suckers and losers.”
“How dare he say that?” Biden said. “I call them patriots and heroes. The only loser I see is Donald Trump. It makes me angry.”
Biden, who began his speech with shout-outs to local officials and members of Congress in attendance, did not acknowledge Phillips during his remarks.
Still, the presence of Phillips at the dinner — and in the Democratic primary race — highlighted the at-times awkward dynamics of Biden’s reelection bid. In polls, most Democrats say the 81-year-old president is too old to run for a second term and that they would rather have a different standard-bearer. But Phillips is the only major elected Democrat who has challenged Biden, and his campaign has struggled to garner much support.
Phillips, a third-term congressman and heir to a family liquor business, acknowledged early in his remarks that he faced long odds in the state’s primary, which is scheduled for next Saturday.
With Biden’s blessing, the Democratic National Committee changed the long-standing order for 2024 primaries, moving South Carolina’s race to begin the voting process.
New Hampshire opted to keep its primary as scheduled, and Phillips focused much of his campaigning there, ultimately receiving about a fifth of the vote in last week’s primary. Biden, whose name was not on the ballot, nonetheless won the New Hampshire primary with about 64 percent of the vote via a write-in campaign.
“Some of you might be wondering why this White, Jewish boy from the frozen tundra of Minnesota would be appearing in a state in which 95 percent of you will be voting for Joe Biden — including most of you in this room,” Phillips said. “I’m just here to tell you, everybody, that I’m here to help us win.”
After launching his presidential bid in October, Phillips has increased his public criticism of the president in recent weeks. While he has few policy differences with Biden, the 55-year-old congressman has repeatedly slammed Biden over his advanced age and low approval ratings.
His comments have often echoed some of the attacks Biden has faced from Republican opponents, including questions about the president’s physical and mental fitness.
“I’m not seeing cognitive decline,” Phillips told Fox News’s Sean Hannity recently. “Of course, we’re seeing physical and communication decline. I think that’s self-evident by any video, but I don’t think that is fair.”
For his part, Biden used his speech in South Carolina to attack Trump’s cognitive abilities, referring to the former president’s mistaken claim that former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, and not then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was in charge of security during the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“He’s a little confused these days,” Biden said. “He can’t tell the difference between Nancy Pelosi and Nikki Haley.”