ROCK HILL, S.C. — Democrats are getting a taste of their own medicine after years of playing the race card against Republicans.
All of the top Democratic presidential candidates have racial blemishes on their records, and their rivals have been more forceful in targeting them as they fight tooth and nail for black voters in the first-in-the-South primary Saturday.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden has faced blowback over the 1994 crime bill that activists blame for putting more minorities behind bars. Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont has been challenged on his commitment to confront the gun violence that has been a scourge to the black community.
Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, has been haunted by racial tensions in his hometown, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s tough-on-crime prosecutorial record is getting more attention.
Meanwhile, former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer has caught flak for having invested in private prisons and former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has been skewered for “stop and frisk” policing tactics that have become indefensible in the eyes of some activists.
“While it is more likely to be a Democratic charge leveled against Republicans now, within the Democrat primary there can also be charges of race baiting or racial tension of one sort or another,” said Brent Nelsen, political science professor at Furman University.
The reason, he said, boils down to simple arithmetic: Somewhere around six in 10 of the Democrats who vote in the primary Saturday is expected to be black.
“They are all struggling for some portion of that vote,” he said.
An outside group that backs President Trump launched a race-infused attack this week against Mr. Biden, rolling out a television ad aimed at black voters that pulled excerpts from former President Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father.”
Speaking Thursday on his “Keeping It Real” radio show, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who hosted a candidate forum with black ministers in Charleston this week, said issues of race cut through all the political labels.
“I don’t agree with a lot of the so-called centrists because a lot of the centrists leave us out of the so-called center, but I also disagree with a lot of the progressives, even though I consider myself progressive, because a lot of progressives are progressive about everything but race,” Mr. Sharpton said.
Mr. Sharpton said some of the rhetoric falls flat because when candidates talk about making Wall Street work for Main Street, they lose track of the fact that “blacks are on Martin Luther King Boulevard.”
“We are not on Main Street,” he said. “Many of the Main Streets excluded us.”
The battle over the black South Carolina voters will help define the contours of the race as the candidates shift their full attention to the Super Tuesday contests next week that include more states with large minority electorates.
Mr. Biden has the most riding on South Carolina and has been more direct this week in pointing out his opponents’ racial problems.
He signaled to voters that Mr. Sanders stood in the way of efforts that could have made it harder for a white supremacist to acquire the gun he used in the 2015 shooting of nine black parishioners at the “Mother Emanuel” church in Charleston.
Mr. Biden also floated the idea that Mr. Steyer could be bankrolling his campaign with some of the money he made from his private prison investments, and he made a more forceful case that candidates who fail to show a diverse base of support should drop out of the race.
“They would have to consider dropping out, not because I want them to or anybody else does, but because the victories and losses are going to dictate it,” Mr. Biden told The Post and Courier this week.
“How do you stay in if you have demonstrated you can’t get any African American support?” Mr. Biden said. “How do you stay in if you don’t get support in South Carolina? So I just think the process is going to take care of that. I don’t think it requires anybody to say, ‘Get out of the race.’”
The comments were read as a likely swipe at Mr. Buttigieg, Ms. Klobuchar and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is dogged by false past claims of American Indian heritage.
Mr. Buttigieg has tried to diffuse the attacks by telling black voters that he is there to listen and by marching out some of his black friends from South Bend, including activist Gladys Muhammad.
“The media keeps putting out that the folks in South Bend do not support Pete,” Ms. Muhammad said at a recent stop with Mr. Buttigieg in North Charleston. “The black people in South Bend do support Pete.
“We have a few disgruntled people who lost an election, still stuck back in time,” she said.
Others also have deployed their black allies.
The candidates also are vowing to fight poverty and gun violence and to promote “racial justice.” They also are promising to increase funding for historically black colleges and Title I schools with higher numbers of low-income students.
Mr. Steyer, meanwhile, is the only candidate to have gone all-in on reparations for slavery.
“Biden appears to be holding on to his core support among African Americans in South Carolina,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute. “The recent endorsement by Rep. James Clyburn should help solidify that.”
The poll showed that 17% of black voters in South Carolina are still up for grabs.