US President Joe Biden's re-election campaign on Friday will register for the South Carolina Democratic primary, the party's first official clash and an early enthusiasm test for a president dogged by a rash of recent polls that show declining support among Black voters.
The state's Feb 3 primary will represent the first time Biden faces a contested election since 2020, squaring off against long shots Dean Phillips, a Minnesota congressman, and self-help guru Marianne Williamson.
It will mark a return to a state that Biden credits with catapulting him to the White House. While Biden is unlikely to face serious competition, a strong primary turnout in a state where the majority of Democratic voters are Black would calm fears about Biden's 2024 electability.
"Even though we know Joe Biden is going to win the primary, we want to get out the vote as a show of enthusiasm and support for the president," said Carol Fowler, a Democratic National Committee member and long-time resident of the Palmetto state.
Biden ousted Iowa and New Hampshire from the top spots on the party's nominating calendar in favour of South Carolina. The move forces any Democratic challenger to Biden to compete first in South Carolina instead of Iowa and New Hampshire, two largely white states which both rejected him in 2020.
"It is an acknowledgement of the strength of the Black vote by kicking off the fight in South Carolina," said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, the powerful civil rights organisation.
Biden did not register for New Hampshire's primary, slated for January, after the state refused the Democratic Party's request to move the date back. Phillips and Williamson will compete in the primary, but they will not amass any delegates needed to win the nomination.
Incumbent presidents often have the luxury of avoiding messy and costly primaries, while using the early contests as rehearsals and mobilising tools ahead of the general election.
While no one expects South Carolina to be competitive in the general election - the state has not voted for a Democrat for president in a general election since Jimmy Carter’s victory there in 1976 - the Biden campaign is expected to invest in a get-out-the-vote operation in South Carolina, including hiring staff, in the upcoming weeks.
It is also expected to invest in early primaries in Nevada and Michigan, both battleground states that will help decide who wins the general election.
A spate of recent polls shows the multi-racial coalition that propelled Biden to the White House is fraying. James Clyburn, a South Carolina congressman and one of the nation's most influential Black leaders, is filing on behalf of the Biden campaign.
A CNN poll published on Oct 31 found that Biden's overall approval rating in South Carolina was just 33%, lower than his national approval, which has hovered around 40% in most polls.
The same poll found that 63% of Black registered voters and 78% of Democratic registered voters in the state give him positive marks for his job performance.