(AP) — After Sen. Kamala Harris challenged Joe Biden's past opposition to school busing in a nationally televised Democratic presidential debate, the former vice president who prides himself on strong relationships in the black community was in an unfamiliar place, playing defense on race.
But Bebe Coker had a message for the man she's known for decades: Don't back down. The 81-year-old education activist remembered that history differently than Harris, recalling black parents encouraging Biden to reject forcing black students to attend white schools.
"I told him not to back down off of that," Coker, who is black, said in an interview. "I know Joe's heart. I guess that's why I'm rather defensive of him. Joe has always been straight-up Joe. But when things come back at people that don't look like us, they will say it's racist because it doesn't sound right when it's coming out of somebody else's mouth."
Such solid support helps explain why a 77-year-old white man is leading the most diverse presidential field in history among black voters. That backing has sustained Biden through a torrent of controversies that would sink virtually any other Democratic politician, including a series of awkward comments about race and persistent attacks from President Donald Trump on son Hunter Biden's business ties in Ukraine.
It's a pragmatic calculation among many African Americans, especially older ones, who believe Biden will appeal to white voters and can defeat Trump next year.
As other candidates make increasingly vocal appeals to African Americans, Biden says he stands apart because he's been with black voters since the beginning of his political career as a member of the New Castle County Council in Delaware.
"I've always been comfortable with the community, and I think the community's always been comfortable with me," he said after a recent meeting in Atlanta with a group of African American mayors.
Black voters will be crucial in determining the next Democratic nominee. Biden's support among this group gives him an important and sometimes overlooked advantage nearly two months before voting begins. While Biden is bunched near the top of the pack in the overwhelmingly white early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, he's better positioned in the more diverse states that follow.
Black voters are a dominant force in South Carolina, where two-thirds of the electorate in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary was nonwhite, according to data provided by the South Carolina Election Commission. A recent Monmouth University poll shows Biden earning support from about 4 in 10 black voters, while Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts trail with 11% each.
Warren has undertaken a feverish effort to court black voters, delivering a well-received speech this month at historically black Clark-Atlanta University that connected the historic mistreatment of minorities to the broad menu of policies she has released.
On Sunday, Pete Buttigieg, who has struggled to appeal to black voters, kicked off a multiday trip through the South by attending a church service in North Carolina led by the Rev. William Barber, co-chairman of the national Poor People's Campaign and a former North Carolina NAACP president.
Bernie Sanders visited a black congregation in South Carolina, where he said that Scripture calls for a renewed focus on justice.