COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina residents gave former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. a front-runner’s welcome Saturday afternoon, when his recently announced presidential campaign made its first stop in the early primary state that will play a critical role in determining the Democratic presidential nominee.
“We want Joe!” the crowd chanted, before Mr. Biden took the stage at a small community center gymnasium. He presented his campaign as the natural heir to the legacy of Barack Obama, who selected Mr. Biden to be his running mate more than a decade ago.
“I think you all get it better than anybody that this election is different than any presidential election in our lifetime,” Mr. Biden said. “Literally our democracy is at stake right now.”
“You’re going to be seeing a lot of me,” Mr. Biden told the crowd of 700. “Folks, above all else, we must defeat Donald Trump.”
The speech indicated how Mr. Biden will seek to bring his “working-class Joe” brand to a more diverse Democratic electorate, which is attempting to balance a pragmatic desire to beat President Trump with a strong tide of progressive energy animating the primary campaign. In the crowded Democratic field in which candidates are searching for ways to distinguish themselves, Mr. Biden is focusing on Mr. Trump, casting him as an outlier president in need of an emergency course correction.
Black voters play an outsize role in the Democratic electorate in South Carolina, and Mr. Biden’s high favorability ratings among that demographic are partly why he is considered the primary’s early front-runner. The Saturday rally, with a roughly 60 percent white crowd, opened with a performance from a local youth gospel choir and marching band. In his speech, Mr. Biden repeatedly emphasized his eight-year tenure as vice president to Mr. Obama, the country’s first black president.
“He’s a hell of a guy,” Mr. Biden said at one point.
“My buddy,” Mr. Biden said at another, before stopping himself. “My buddy? I shouldn’t be so casual. The president of the United States, Barack Obama.”
Mr. Biden has forged deep relationships in the South throughout his decades-long political career and arrived at the Hyatt Park gymnasium to whoops and cheers, a testament to how much good will remains even after he delayed his presidential announcement for months. Mr. Biden and his wife, Jill, are set to attend a private fund-raiser in Columbia on Saturday evening, and a church service in West Columbia on Sunday morning.
Missing from his speech were two high-profile elements in Mr. Biden’s career that are sure to follow him throughout the campaign and that could complicate his cozy relationship with black voters. This year Mr. Biden expressed regret for the crime and criminal justice legislation he championed in the early 1990s, saying it resulted in unequal sentencing and burdened black communities. Mr. Biden has also faced scrutiny for his handling of the 1991 confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill.
Several people interviewed in the enthusiastic crowd dismissed both incidents as unimportant for their continued support. The repeated response: No matter what, Mr. Biden is better than Mr. Trump.
“The stakes are so high,” said Terry Davenport, 57, from Columbia. “Joe has a track record. And the track record comes with good and bad. But I think the good outweighs the bad.”
Kenneth Webb, 73, said, “Everyone makes mistakes, but I’m backing him because we need someone who can go toe-to-toe with Trump.”
Later Saturday evening, Mr. Biden took on Mr. Trump more directly. At a private fund-raiser, Mr. Biden said he was not intimidated by the president’s penchant for calling his political enemies by nicknames. He joked that if he were the Democratic nominee, he might respond in kind.
“There’s so many nicknames I’m inclined to give this guy,” Biden said to laughter in the room. “You can just start with clown.”
Mr. Biden later said he would try not to get drawn into a back-and-forth with Mr. Trump. Previously, Mr. Biden apologized for saying he would “beat the hell out of” Mr. Trump if they both were in high school.
“He wants this to be a mudslinging match,” Mr. Biden said. “I don’t want to get down to that level. The presidency is an office that requires some dignity. “