Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has apologized for comments about working with segregationist lawmakers in his early days in the U.S. Senate and says he now understands that his remarks could have offended some people.
"Was I wrong a few weeks ago?" the former vice president and Delaware senator asked a mostly black audience of several hundred people Saturday in Sumter during the first day of a weekend visit to South Carolina. "Yes, I was. I regret it, and I'm sorry for any of the pain of misconception that caused anybody."
Biden and one of his rivals for the 2020 nomination, California Sen. Kamala Harris, scheduled campaign stops Sunday in the first Southern state to vote in next year's primary and a crucial proving ground for candidates seeking support of black Democrats.
In last month's presidential debate, Harris was unrelenting in her criticism of Biden, both his views on federally mandated busing and his comments about working with segregationist senators long ago. Harris is one of two black candidates in the contest.
Though the issue is not at the forefront of the 2020 primary, it could resonate in a state with a complicated history with race and segregation.
Biden defended his record on racial issues and reminded voters of his ties to former President Barack Obama, whose popularity in South Carolina remains high.
Without naming Harris, Biden on Saturday referenced what he characterized as expected attacks from other campaigns that are eager to take him on.
"I'm going to let my record stand for itself and not be distorted or smeared," Biden said. He recalled his support of Obama's criminal justice overhaul and pointed out areas in which he disagreed, such as the three strikes policy that led to longer sentences for repeat offenders.
"I'm flawed and imperfect like everyone else. I've made the best decisions that I could at the moment they had to be made," Biden said. "If the choice is between doing nothing and acting, I've chosen to act."
Several Harris supporters in the state said her pointed and personal critique of Biden, who opposed busing mandates in the 1970s, struck a chord in South Carolina. Marguerite Willis, a recent Democratic candidate for governor, said that when Harris spoke in last month's debate about her own experiences being bused as a child, the entire room where Willis was watching the debate grew quiet.
"Growing up here in South Carolina, that's meaningful to us," said Willis. Schools were segregated when she was a child, and she recalled not meeting a black girl her age until leaving the state for college. "So when she talked about being bused, it was powerful for me and I'm sure it's powerful for a lot of people here who have experiences of their own."
On the subject of busing, Biden told voters: "I don't believe a child should have to get on a bus to attend a good school. There should be first-rate schools of quality in every neighborhood of this nation, especially in 2019 America."
Biden told Orangeburg voters that President Donald Trump is overtly racist and a divisive leader who governs as though "any problem that we have is because of those drug-dealing Mexicans."
The campaign dynamics have shifted and become more personal since the last time Biden and Harris were in South Carolina.
Harris muddied the debate over busing during a recent campaign swing in Iowa, appearing to tell reporters she now opposes federally mandated busing to address school segregation. Her campaign disputed the notion that she was backtracking from the position she took during the debate, arguing that she supported busing in the 1970s — when Biden opposed it — but believes conditions now make it an issue to be decided by local school districts.
During an appearance Saturday at Essence Fest in New Orleans, an annual music and cultural conference that is the largest gathering of black women in the country, Harris pledged to fight the segregation that she said lingers today.
"There's still mandatory busing that exists today," Harris said. "Because we had so much flight. ... Segregation persists now not necessarily as a function of legislator. ... But just because there has been a drawing out of the resources in public schools. That is one of my highest priorities, and we have got to deal with that."
AP National Writer Errin Haines Whack contributed to this report.