(Corrects in paragraph 7 that Clyburn is No. 3 House Democrat, not highest-ranking lawmaker)
By Trevor Hunnicutt and Simon Lewis
CHARLESTON, S.C., Feb 26 (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden won the endorsement of an influential black congressman from South Carolina on Wednesday, which could prove pivotal as he competes with national front-runner Bernie Sanders for the support of the state’s African-American voters in Saturday’s primary.
Recent opinion polls show Biden, once the leading candidate in the race to be the party’s candidate in November, losing ground nationally with black voters to the surging senator from Vermont.
U.S. Representative James Clyburn’s endorsement carries weight in a state where African Americans make up about 60% of the Democratic electorate and where Biden is counting on a good showing after a fourth-place finish in Iowa, fifth place in New Hampshire and second in Nevada.
Sanders, a democratic socialist, has taken command of the Democratic race after his resounding win in Nevada last week. Three days after South Carolina’s primary, voters in 14 states will go to the polls for the crucial Super Tuesday contests.
At an event in North Charleston on Wednesday, Sanders touted his momentum and went after Biden by name, saying he would not be able to generate the turnout needed to defeat Republican President Donald Trump on Nov. 3.
“We have come a long, long way,” Sanders said of his position in the top two of the state’s most recent opinion polls, along with Biden.
Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, endorsed Biden at a news conference, saying he could “think of no one with the type of integrity, no one more committed to the fundamental principles to make this country what it is than my good friend.”
Biden responded: “I’m here, heart and soul, with everything I’ve got to earn the support of the people of South Carolina. Nothing is expected or guaranteed.”
Most of the Democratic candidates started Wednesday with speeches at a breakfast in South Carolina hosted by the National Action Network, founded by civil rights leader Al Sharpton. The event focused on mobilizing black churches to get out the vote.
The South Carolina and upcoming Super Tuesday elections come amid unprecedented spending on advertising by candidates and their supporters.
Led by the two billionaires in the race - progressive activist Tom Steyer and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg - campaigns and political action committees (PACs) backing them have spent nearly $900 million on TV and digital ads since January 2019, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks campaign spending at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
Bloomberg has spent the most, dropping $377 million on 444,000 ads since entering the race just three months ago, while Steyer has spent $145 million. Those amounts dwarf the $62 million spent by this time in the campaign by a super PAC supporting Republican Jeb Bush in 2016, then the highest amount spent up to this point in a presidential nominating race.
So far this cycle, Sanders has spent about $20 million and Biden $4.7 million, the university said. Trump has spent about $17 million on ads so far.
Biden’s campaign announced on Wednesday that it was making a six-figure broadcast and digital ad buy in Super Tuesday states including Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina, where the Democratic electorates also have a high percentage of black voters. Cash-strapped Biden is also counting on a wave of free media should he win South Carolina.
The candidates acknowledged the sharp jabs they threw at each other hours earlier - in Tuesday’s debate they repeatedly attacked Sanders as a risky choice to lead the party in November - but pledged to eventually unify behind one candidate.
Pete Buttigieg, the moderate former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, criticized Sanders during the debate for the changing estimates on the costs of his proposals such as government-run healthcare.
“I can tell you exactly how it all adds up. It adds up to four more years of Donald Trump,” Buttigieg said.
Sharpton, in introducing Sanders at the breakfast, urged the crowd not to get caught up in the “socialist” branding, noting that the tag has been used in the past to discredit leaders of movements.
“Socialism, capitalism, it all has not worked out for black folks,” Sharpton said. “If socialism is on your mind, read about what they said about Martin Luther King Jr. and others.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has also sought to differentiate herself from Sanders, a friend and progressive ally. She campaigned at the historically black South Carolina State University in Orangeburg on Wednesday, hoping that strong back-to-back debate performances would give her a boost after disappointing finishes in the first three states.
“I’m the woman who’s going to beat Donald Trump,” she said, before listing policies to combat combating racial inequities such as voter disenfranchisement, as well as funding historically black colleges and ending the criminalization of marijuana.
Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, Simon Lewis, Joseph Ax and Trevor Hunnicutt in South Carolina; Additional reporting by Jim Oliphant in Washington and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Writing by Amanda Becker, Sharon Bernstein and John Whitesides; Editing by Scott Malone, Sonya Hepinstall and Jonathan Oatis