MIAMI (Reuters) – A day after coming under attack by fellow presidential candidate Kamala Harris in a debate, former Vice President Joe Biden defended his record on Friday, arguing that the fiery exchange did not reflect his “lifetime commitment to civil rights.”
Biden was addressing the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the African-American advocacy group founded by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, in Chicago.
Before reading his prepared remarks, Biden paused to address Thursday’s blistering comments by Harris, a black U.S. senator from California, who criticized him for opposing mandatory school busing in the 1970s and for touting his cooperation with segregationists while he was a young senator.
He told the crowd the debate format was insufficient for him to detail his decades-long work to promote racial equality, including his time as vice-president to former President Barack Obama.
“We all know that 30 seconds to 60 seconds on a campaign debate exchange can’t do justice to a lifetime commitment to civil rights,” Biden said.
Biden was introduced by Jackson, the longtime civil-rights leader and former presidential candidate, who said Biden has “the stuff it takes to make America better.”
During his remarks, Biden turned to Jackson and said, “I know and you know I fought my heart out to ensure that civil, rights, and voting rights, equal rights are enforced everywhere,” Biden said.
Biden disputed Harris’ contention that he opposed busing, the practice of transporting students to schools within or outside their school districts as a remedy for discrimination in the 1970s, saying that he supported voluntary efforts for school districts to desegregate. And he reaffirmed his support for the federal government’s power to address civil-rights abuses.
Harris’ attack – and Biden’s sometimes faltering response – was widely viewed as a possible early seminal event in the 2020 Democratic presidential contest, raising Harris’ profile and perhaps wounding Biden’s status as the race’s front-runner.
Biden had gone into the debate with a significant polling lead over candidates such as U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but his moderate record fell under fire by Harris and other candidates at Thursday’s debate.
Harris’ campaign on Friday rolled out a bevy of new endorsements in key early voting states such as Iowa, South Carolina and California.
Speaking to reporters outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Friday, Harris said, “I think we covered a lot of issues, and I’m looking forward to the next (debate).”
Asked if she thought Biden had responded adequately to her discussion of his comments on his work with segregationists, Harris said, “He said what he felt.”
Reporting by James Oliphant and Ginger Gibson in Miami; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington; Editing by Susan Thomas