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In South Carolina, Sanders Gives Biden A Pass

Sen. Bernie Sanders standing with a microphone
Kit Norton
Sen. Bernie Sanders addressed those gathered at South Carolina's College of Charleston's gymnasium on Sunday.

Editor's note: This story is part of a collaborative reporting project between VTDigger and VPR.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — For more than an hour on Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders instructed a full College of Charleston’ gymnasium on the need to raise the minimum wage, the importance of his “Medicare for All” proposal, criminal justice reform and protecting undocumented immigrants.

But conspicuously absent from his remarks was any mention of former Vice President Joe Biden, who, just hours earlier, Sanders had bashed on social media for praising the pharmaceutical industry during a Saturday fundraiser.

Biden had said that except for a “couple opioid outfits,” there are “great drug companies out there” during a dinner with donors in Dallas.

Sanders responded with a statement on Sunday afternoon, saying he disagrees with Biden and that he believes “pharmaceutical companies are greedy, corrupt and engaged in price fixing.”

On Sunday evening, however, Sanders did not once mention the former vice president, despite being in South Carolina, where a recent poll has the Vermont senator 25 points behind Biden’s leading 43%.

Kit Norton spoke with VPR's Henry Epp. Listen to their conversation above.

Sunday’s event was the only one for Sanders in South Carolina after he pulled out of several planned appearances this week to rest his voice.

The closest Sanders came to lashing out at Biden was when he was outlining his vision for health care in the U.S. — which has been one of the few questions of policy that has received debate among the Democratic candidates for president.

Sanders told the crowd of 800 — predominantly young white people — that politicians, drug companies and private insurers have continued to attack him for his Medicare for All legislation.

“They will tell you how terrible I am. How terrible Medicare for All is. How the insurance companies and the drug companies love the American people,” Sanders said.

“Don’t believe a word of that,” he added.

This comes after months of both candidates and their surrogates trading barbs on health care, and is fresh of Sanders and Biden sparring over Medicare for All during Thursday’s debate, with the former vice president making the case his plan to add a public option to the Affordable Care Act.

But Sanders’ South Carolina campaign said it was unconcerned with going after Biden or his strong position in the polls.

“We don’t look at it that way,” said Michael Wukela, Sanders’ South Carolina communications director, about attempting to play catch up with the former vice president.

“I can’t remember a poll that turned out right in South Carolina,” drawled Wukela.

Sanders was also among friends at the event in Charleston.

Most of the people who came to hear him speak were already converts, just there to seem him in person and listen to what they already knew he would say.

“Charleston is not reflective of South Carolina. Charleston is very different,” said Denise McTighe, who had already made her mind up she would support Sanders.

“I have generally been a Bernie supporter. Last time and this time, and frankly, he’s the only candidate that I give any money to,” said Charles Feeley, who added this was the third Sanders’ rally he’d been to.

After hearing Sanders speak, Suzy Hardwicke said she thought he would make a “wonderful president” and said he would do well in the South Carolina Democratic contest, but was unsure how he would fair against President Donald Trump.

“For some reason, the people of South Carolina are just not open to what the Democrats have to say, which is unfortunate because I really think that a lot of them could benefit,” Hardwicke said.

Before the event started, as people began to line up in front of the building’s red brick facade — which seemed at odds with the classic southern architecture elsewhere on campus — a pair of couples walked past the young Sanders supporters.

“I saw Bernie at the bar. He said free drinks for everybody,” one of the men heckled the crowd, “Who’s paying?”

No one answered him.

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