GREENVILLE, S.C. — Julius Stephens is 74, black, and calls himself a liberal.

Standing outside Big Rod’s Barber Shop in North Augusta after watching Joe Biden surrogates rally on behalf of the vice president last week, Stephens gushed about a different candidate: Elizabeth Warren. The Army veteran cited her health care plan and said he “like(s) a lot of the things Warren is saying.” He also praised Bernie Sanders’ policies.

But then Stephens added that the country “would never vote for a woman and a liberal that’s been branded a socialist.” So he’s planning to vote for Biden.

Voters like Stephens will determine the Feb. 29 contest in South Carolina, the first primary with a large population of black voters. He also represents the dilemma of the three Democrats trailing Biden nationally: After rolling out endorsements from black activists and elected officials, and releasing policies that explicitly address systemic inequality among African Americans, Sanders, Warren and Pete Buttigieg have little to show for it in South Carolina.

With voting kicking off in just a few weeks, the three find themselves in much the same spot they began the campaign: Needing Biden to perform so poorly in the first few states that black voters start to doubt whether he can win and migrate to another candidate.

The reluctance to consider candidates other than Biden was borne out in interviews with dozens of black voters in South Carolina over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, and is confirmed in polling. Time and again, African American voters said it isn’t that they don’t like Sanders or Warren. But they know what they’re getting with Biden, who has a relationship and familiarity with black voters, especially older black voters, that extend beyond his time as Barack Obama’s No. 2. And they’re wary that the two progressives can deliver the sweeping remake of the government they’re selling.

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