ATLANTA — A day after the fifth Democratic presidential debate was held in Atlanta, candidates fanned out across the region on Thursday, many speaking primarily to black audiences, in hopes of peeling away some of the black voters who have formed a core of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s support.
Mr. Biden’s strength with black voters has helped him maintain an edge in the race even as he has slipped behind candidates like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in some polls and sharply disagreed with two black candidates, Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California. At the most recent debate, Mr. Biden, again, collided with Mr. Booker and Ms. Harris, particularly on issues of racial inequities in the criminal justice system.
At a ministers’ breakfast meeting sponsored by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network Thursday morning, Mr. Booker pitched himself as the best candidate to address key issues in the black community.
“The black-white wealth gap is growing. The leading cause of death for African-American boys and men is murder,” Mr. Booker said. “We are at a point now where there are more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves in the 1850s.”
In impassioned remarks colored with scripture, Mr. Booker said the country needed to “ensure that the next president of the United States doesn’t have an academic appreciation of these issues, but actually has a passion, an instinctual connection — is someone that we can trust to bring these issues to the front and center of the national agenda.”
It was a familiar appeal. “I have a lifetime of experience with black voters: I’ve been one since I was 18,” Mr. Booker said at last night’s debate, to laughter. “Nobody on this stage should need a focus group to hear from African-American voters.”
Elsewhere in Atlanta, largely considered the country’s foremost hub of black entrepreneurship and political power, Ms. Harris held a “Black Women’s Breakfast,” where she leaned on her identity and her barrier-breaking career to connect with the audience, overwhelmingly made up of black professional women.
She said that while her record in black communities has come under repeated criticism, it was undoubtedly better than those of the race’s white front-runners: Mr. Biden, Ms. Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“There are people on that stage who wrote the crime bill, who voted for the crime bill and who just learned how to talk about justice. Are you kidding me?” Ms. Harris said. “Where were these folks when I was creating a national model on what we need to do to end mass incarceration?”
A number of other candidates also toured Atlanta, making a concerted pitch to black voters. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and the businessmen Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer attended Mr. Sharpton’s breakfast, too. Mr. Biden held a round-table discussion with a group of black mayors, including Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, who has endorsed him, before leaving for a forum in South Carolina, an early primary state where he leads in the polls.
Speaking to reporters, Mr. Biden cited his long relationship with the African-American community in Delaware when asked about his support among black voters. “I’ve always been comfortable in the community, and I think that the community’s always been comfortable with me,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Sanders appeared at an afternoon rally at Morehouse College, the historically black men’s college whose graduates include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Maynard Jackson, who was elected the first black mayor of Atlanta in 1973.
Standing near a statue of Dr. King, Mr. Sanders told the gathered crowd that fighting for the poor across races was the civil rights struggle of this era.
“Today we tell the billionaire class that this country belongs to all of us, not just to the few,” Mr. Sanders said. “But we also have to focus on the levels of racial disparities that exist in this country. How does it happen that the average white family owns 10 times more wealth than the average black family?”
Mr. Sanders invoked his own background, as a Jewish man whose family escaped Nazi Germany. He said he learned about racism through his family’s stories of fleeing persecution.
“A lot of people in my father’s family didn’t make it out of Poland, and they were murdered by the father of white supremacy, Adolf Hitler,” he said.
In an evening event that has been billed as a major campaign speech, Ms. Warren will speak at another historically black school, Clark Atlanta University. She will be joined by Representative Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, the prominent black congresswoman who endorsed her this month.
“From the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to the Atlanta Washerwomen Strike, history has proven that when working women fight together, they win,” Ms. Warren said on Twitter, posting a video previewing the speech featuring the writer Roxane Gay.
Black voters are an important constituency in the Democratic Party, and the candidate who has won the majority of the black vote has almost always gone on to be the party’s nominee. But in a race with multiple black candidates and where white candidates are promising policies specifically addressing racial inequities, the diversity of the black electorate — with respect to age, gender, education levels and ideology — has been on display.
Even so, it has been difficult for candidates to wrest black support away from Mr. Biden, who is helped by his sky-high name recognition, association with former President Barack Obama and his promise that he is best suited to win the white working-class voters who helped deliver the last election to President Trump.
In this week’s debate, Mr. Booker criticized Mr. Biden for his opposition to legalizing marijuana, noting that black marijuana users are more frequently penalized than white ones.
“Black voters are pissed off and they’re worried,” Mr. Booker had said. He added that while he had “a lot of respect” for Mr. Biden, “this week I heard him literally say that ‘I don’t think we should legalize marijuana.’”
Looking directly at Mr. Biden, Mr. Booker said, “I thought you might have been high when you said it.”
Mr. Biden touted his support among black voters during the debate, saying, “I come out of the black community in terms of my support. They know me.” But then he mistakenly said he had the endorsement of the “only African-American woman who had ever been elected to the United States Senate.”
He was apparently referring to former Senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois — the first black woman to become a senator — but he was standing on the same stage as Ms. Harris, the second, who laughed at his remark.
“Proud to be the second Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate,” Ms. Harris later tweeted.
Other candidates are also fighting for black support. Mr. Steyer, a California billionaire, addressing Mr. Sharpton’s group, emphasized the work of nonprofit organizations he had funded in encouraging voter registration. He pledged that on the first day of his presidency, he would form a commission to “retell the story of the African-American experience.”
Mr. Buttigieg sought to establish common ground with the black audience, pointing out that, as a gay man, he had benefited from black activism during the civil rights movement.
But he has struggled to build support among this constituency. A recent South Carolina poll showed he is the choice of fewer than 1 percent of black likely Democratic voters there.
Ms. Klobuchar, in her remarks, focused on economic issues affecting the black community, and discussed raising the minimum wage, improving access to child care and long-term care, and enhancing Social Security.
But Ms. Klobuchar repeated her stance against free college for all. “Ten percent of the kids come from families that make over $200,000 a year,” she told the ministers, urging investment in both historically black schools and training programs for jobs with high demand.
“We need to make college more affordable, but we need to make sure we focus on helping people who need the help,” she said, suggesting an effort to steer “kids of color” into high-paying jobs in science, technology and math.
Mr. Booker said that when he arrived in the Senate in 2013, he realized “it was the least diverse place” he had ever worked.
“I looked at the Judiciary Committee and I couldn’t even find a black staffer,” Mr. Booker said. “It cannot be about us without us,” he said.
Thomas Kaplan contributed reporting.