DES MOINES - Joe Biden was fresh off campaigning in the warm embrace of South Carolina, where the former vice president has held a commanding lead in the polls, when a pointed question in icy, politically competitive Iowa put him on the defensive.
"Why is Sen. Sanders leading you with black voters under the age of 35?" Antonia Hylton, a reporter for Vice News, asked at a presidential forum hosted by her outlet on Monday.
"He is not leading me, black voters, under the age of - look, just all I know is, I am leading everybody, combined, with black voters," Biden responded, engaging in some of the hyperbole he often disavows.
Some audience members gathered at an events center here laughed. Biden did not.
"No, I'm serious!" Biden said. He leaned in toward Hylton. "Wait, wait, wait, wait. Let's get this straight. Name me anybody who has remotely close to the support I have in the African American community nationally."
Biden's forceful - and somewhat exaggerated - remarks, made at an event focused on voters of color, reflected the intensifying competition between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont here in the leadoff caucus state, as well as the importance of substantial African American support to Biden's campaign. In fact, in some polls Sanders does hold an advantage among younger African American voters, and, while Biden maintains a significant lead among black voters overall, the margin varies from survey to survey and has tightened in some polls.
Biden's fate in Iowa remains uncertain amid a fluid race less than two weeks before the caucuses, but he has always been sure of his strength in the states with larger black populations that vote after Iowa and New Hampshire, especially South Carolina. And so, when Hylton suggested that his lead was slipping amid a Sanders rise, citing a Vice News poll, Biden protested vigorously.
"But he's way behind me," he said. "He's way behind."
Throughout the forum, Biden was stern, passionate and sometimes combative as he discussed his standing with black voters.
He fiercely asserted his ability to connect with African American people. ("I'm not saying, 'I am black,' he said. "But I want to tell you something. I have spent my whole career with the black community.") He described his empathy for black Americans and said he had "never, ever, ever, ever" taken their votes for granted, "not once." And he hinted at disdain for "especially young reporters" who, according to Biden, wonder why so many African Americans like him.
"They. Know. Me," he said firmly. "They know where my heart is."
After Hylton pressed Biden on his standing against Sanders, her co-moderator, Alzo Slade, jumped in to parse Biden's lead.
"Aw, yeah, come on, man," Biden, smiling this time, replied to Slade, who burst into laughter. "Give me a break."
"You know better," Biden said, pointing a finger at Slade. "You know better. You know better."
He ticked through a host of endorsements he has received from black officials.
"I mean," Biden said, "come on."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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