With the urgency to stop the momentum of an ascendant front-runner in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the seven candidates on the debate stage vying for the nomination brought a fiery and chaotic showdown to South Carolina only days before the state’s primary on Saturday and a week prior to Super Tuesday, when 15 contests divvy up over one-third of pledged delegates on a single night.
In between sharpened jabs and heated crosstalk, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and businessman Tom Steyer took turns pitching themselves as the one to topple President Donald Trump in November.
But with the last of the early contests almost here, the contenders, faced with a key test in their bids for the White House, were fueled by both a united urgency to defeat Trump and by deep divisions over ideology that have defined the campaign thus far.
Here’s how the night unfolded.
10 p.m. Candidates address misconceptions, personal mottoes
Candidates responded to final questions on the biggest misconception about them and their personal mottoes.
Steyer said the biggest misconception about him is that he is somehow “defined by business, success and money.” He said his motto is “to tell the truth and do what’s right.”
Klobuchar followed, saying the biggest misconception about her is that she’s “boring.” She said her motto is that “politics is about improving people’s lives.”
Biden joked about the biggest misconception, saying he thinks he has more hair than he does.
“When you get knocked down, get up,” Biden said about his motto. “Everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity no matter what.”
Sanders went next, saying the biggest misconception about him is that his ideas are “radical.”
“They’re not. In one form or another, they exist in countries all over the world,” he said.
And he said his motto came from Nelson Mandela — “everything is impossible until it happens.”
Warren offered two misconceptions about her, one being that she “doesn’t eat very much” and the other — on a more serious note — that she thought she should be president of the United States.
She said her motto came from the book of Matthew, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Buttigieg said that a misconception about him is that he’s not passionate, “I get that I’m kind of level, some say unflappable, I don’t think you want a president who is flappable,” Buittigieg said.
“But it’s precisely because I’m so passionate about the things that are going on in this country,” he added
Buttigieg said that his mottoes come from the scripture, one being that, “if you are a leader, first be a servant.” Another, he said, is to, “treat others we would be treated.”
Bloomberg said that one misconception about him is that he’s “six feet tall.” This seems to be a response to President Trump who coined the nickname “mini Mike” for the Democratic contender.
He also said that he has, “trained for this job for a long time and when I get it I’m going to do something, rather than just talk about it.”
9:48 p.m. Buttigieg clashes with Sanders over private insurance
Buttigieg took a detour while discussing foreign policy to address something Sanders had asked him earlier in the debate. Buttigieg said that he does not believe that health care for everybody is radical, which, he said, “is why I’m for it, very much in a different way, though.”
However, he pushed back on Sanders’ plan to abolish private insurance.
“What is a radical idea is completely eliminating all private insurance and part of how you know it is is that no industrialized country has gone that far,” Buttigieg said. He used Denmark to illustrate his point, saying that even they have not abolished the possibility of private insurance.
9:47 p.m. Would the Democrats meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un?
Faced with the question of potentially meeting with the North Korean dictator, Klobuchar, told the moderators she would, but “not in the way this president has done it.”
“He literally thinks he can go over and bring a hot dish to the dictator next door and he thinks everything is going to be fine,” she said. “He has not done it with our allies.”
Biden, too, hit Trump for negotiating with a dictator during his response, saying, “You don’t negotiate with a dictator, give him legitimacy, without any notion whether he is going to do anything at all. You don’t do that. Look what happened. He gave this dictator — he’s a thug — thug — legitimacy, weakened the sanctions around the world against holding — committing people not to trade anything from oil to parts that can deal with providing missile technology, and what’s happened? It’s been weakened.”
9:40 p.m. Sanders: ‘I’m proud of being Jewish … but you can’t ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people’
In response to a question about moving the American embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, Sanders deflected.
“The answer is it’s something that we would take into consideration,” Sanders said. “I happen to believe that what our foreign policy in the Mideast should be about is absolutely protecting the independence and security of Israel, but you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people.”
9:38 p.m. Buttigieg takes on Sanders for comments on Castro
After Biden took aim at Sanders for praising the literacy program implemented by Castro, Buttigieg also took a turn to hammer Sanders on his comments by attacking him for his “nostalgia” of the 1960s, and not looking ahead to the future.
“I am not looking forward to a scenario where it comes down to Donald Trump with his nostalgia for the social order of the ’50s and Bernie Sanders with a nostalgia for the revolution politics of the ’60s,” Buttigieg said. “This is not about what was happening in the ’70s or ’80s, this is about the future.”
“This is about 2020,” he said to loud applause from the crowd, before again invoking Democrats’ fears of running with a democratic socialist at the top of the ticket.
“We are not going to survive or succeed, and certainly not going to win by reliving the Cold War, and we’re not going to win these critical House and Senate races if people in those races have to explain why the nominee of the Democratic Party is telling people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime. We’ve got to be a lot smarter about this,” he added.
9:32 p.m. Sanders defends his sympathetic comments on Cuba, met with boos from audience
Moderators questioned Sanders for the sympathy he’s expressed for socialist governments in Cuba in Nicaragua, most recently pointing to social programs implemented by Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro as a silver lining within his authoritarian government.
“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” Sanders said in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview Sunday night. “You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”
Sanders defended himself by equating his position with Obama’s stance on Cuba.
“I said what Barack Obama said in terms of Cuba, that Cuba made progress on education,” Sanders said, being met with resounding boos from the audience.
“Really, really?” Sanders responded to their disapproval.
Biden went on to argue Obama never said anything “positive” about the Cuban government as Sanders suggested.
“He acknowledged they did increase life expectancy, but he went on and condemned the dictatorship, he went on and condemned the people who, in fact, had run that committee,” Biden said.
9:30 p.m. Warren calls on Bloomberg again to release his tax returns.
Warren called out Bloomberg on his campaign’s slow response to releasing his tax returns, saying that getting it done after Super Tuesday, where nearly 40% of the delegates will have been allocated, is too late.
“He plans to release them after Super Tuesday. It is not enough to be able to say, just trust me on this. We have a president who said he was going to release his taxes after the election — and has refused to do this,” she said.
Warren drew a parallel between the former mayor of New York City and Trump, falling in line with the attack the rest of the Democratic field has made on Bloomberg.
9:29 p.m. Trump defends administration response to coronavirus
While traveling back to Washington aboard Air Force One, the president has started tweeting. In one tweet, he wrote, “CDC and my Administration are doing a GREAT job of handling Coronavirus, including the very early closing of our borders to certain areas of the world.”
He added that Democrats opposed the efforts and that it turned out to be “the correct decision.”
9:27 p.m.Candidates take on the influence of China
In response to a moderator question, Bloomberg said he would not allow Chinese firms to build U.S. infrastructure. However, he stressed that relations with China are vital to American interests.
“But make no mistake about it, we have to deal with China, if we’re ever going to solve the claim climate crisis. We have to deal with them because our economies are inextricably linked,” Bloomberg said.
Biden also said he would not allow Chinese firms to build U.S. infrastructure, citing the human rights violations of the Chinese government. Biden said that the U.S. must make it clear that China must,”play by the rules, period.”
9:23 p.m. Democrats outline response to coronavirus amid rising fears
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that it’s not a question of if the coronavirus will penetrate this country, but when, the Democrats pitched how they would respond to the health crisis if they were president.
“What we have to do is make sure we have treatment for those Americans and that they are in a quarantine situation. We don’t want to expose people but we want to give them help. And I would agree, when Mayor Bloomberg said that this president has not invested like he should have in his budget, he tried to cut back on the CDC, he tried to cut back on the international organization that would coordinate with the rest of the world, he hasn’t yet really addressed the nation on this topic, I would do all of that. But I want to take this out of politics right now and talk to the American people because this is so serious,” Klobuchar said.
Biden invoked his experience with dealing with the Ebola crisis, telling the crowd, “I was part of making sure that pandemic did not get to the United States, saved millions of lives. … We increased the budget of the CDC, we increased the NIH budget … what I would do immediately is restore the funding.”
“No one up here has ever dealt internationally with any of these world leaders I’m the only one that has,” Biden added.
Sanders, too, hit the Trump administration for cutting funding to the CDC and called for international cooperation, “Whether or not the issue is climate change, which is clearly a global crisis requiring international cooperation, or infectious diseases like coronavirus, requiring international cooperation. We have to work and expand the World Health Organization. Obviously, we have to make sure the CDC, the NIH, our infectious departments, are fully funded. This is a global problem, we’ve got to work with countries all the over the world to solve it.”
9:23 p.m. Debate playing in the press cabin of Air Force One
Trump is traveling back to Washington from Germany. A pool report indicates that the debate in South Carolina is playing in the press cabin. Reporters traveling with the president and first lady also reported that they had not seen the couple during a stop to refuel.
9:20 p.m. Candidates pitch themselves for commander-in-chief role
The Democratic contenders could inherit tricky foreign policy issues as commander-in-chief.
Warren again walked back her stance to pull troops out of the Middle East, saying we can’t “cut out” on allies there.
“We need not to cut and run on our allies. We need an approach that keeps us safe by using all of the tools in a measured way,” Warren said.
Bloomberg echoed that sentiment, saying the nation needs eyes and ears on the ground to prevent terrorism.
“We have to have some troops in places where terrorists congregate and to not do so is just irresponsible. We shouldn’t be fighting wars that we can’t win,” Bloomberg said.
Buttigieg harped on the importance of restoring the credibility of the United States as a world power.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is restore the credibility of the United States,” Buttigieg said. “I don’t think we need to have ground troops anywhere terrorists can gather because terrorists can gather anywhere in the world — but we do need intelligence capabilities and specialists on the ground, but what good is that if you have a president who won’t listen to them?”
9:09 p.m. Klobuchar says wanting to legalize marijuana ‘is realistic’
Klobuchar says that, “it is realistic to want to legalize marijuana” in response to a question from a moderator. She said that too many people may have criminal records that have ” stopped them from getting jobs.” She also stressed the importance of treatment when it comes to criminal justice with drug abuse.
“If you want to make the criminal justice system work, you don’t want to have repeat customers, and you want to help people get off of drugs and the way you do that is with drug courts,” Klobuchar said.
9:08 p.m. Bloomberg first contender to bring up coronavirus
Amid a global health crisis over the rapidly spreading coronavirus, Bloomberg was the first candidate to bring up the topic, and condemned Trump over his response.
“One of the great problems today — you read about the virus — what’s really happening here is the president fired the pandemic specialist in this country two years ago,” he said. “So there’s nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing. And he’s defunded the Centers for Disease Control, so we don’t have the organization we need. Is is a very serious thing. As you see, the stock market is falling apart because people are really worried and they should be. We don’t have anybody to respond.”
9:05 p.m. Buttigieg on rural health care for minority families: ‘All of these things are connected’
Responding to a question about providing sufficient rural health care, Buttigieg said he believes shortened life expediencies for black, rural families and hospital closures are the “results of racial voter suppression.”
“All of these things are connected — housing, wages, the ability to get anything meaningful done on criminal justice reform,” he said. “All of these things are going to be harder to deal with as long as black voices are systematically excluded from political participation.”
He said he planned to address the aforementioned issues with his Fredrick Douglass plan, which includes a 21st Century Voting Rights Act.
9:05 p.m. Sanders says Medicare for All advantages rural health care
In response to a question about access to healthcare in rural areas, Sanders talked about a plan he enacted in South Carolina which expanded funds for a community health center as, “part of the Affordable Care Act.” Sanders also took the opportunity to talk about how access would be improved by Medicare for All, one of the cornerstone issues of his campaign.
“The advantage of a Medicare for All healthcare program, because it’s not driven by profits for the drug companies and the insurance companies,” Sanders said.
9:04 pm. Klobuchar touts her rural health care policy
Klobuchar leaned on her rural health care policy, saying “one size doesn’t fit all.”
“I am leading — the lead Democrat on a bill to extend that, to have other types of hospitals, like emergency rooms in rural areas be covered,” she said.
She promoted her plan to incentivize understaffed fields, like nursing and plumbing.
“So putting incentives in place with how we do loan payback, making one-year and two-year degrees free, and then, of course, creating loan payback programs if people will go, especially medical students, into rural areas,” she said.
9:03 p.m. Biden pitches his long history with the black community to address inequities
For Biden, the debate represents a make-or-break moment, since he’s banking on a win in the Palmetto State to carry him with momentum through Super Tuesday, he delivered a strong response on his efforts to convince black voters that he can change years of inequities.
“Number one, my entire life I have been involved with the black community,” Biden began. “I was a public defender. I worked in the projects. I came along, and the first thing as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, extended the Voting Rights Act eventually for 25 years. And I have been deeply involved.”
“Secondly, I provided for the opportunity for first-time home buyers to be able to have a $15,000 tax credit so they can get the mortgage at the front end and be able to keep it,” he said. “Thirdly, I go after those people who are involved in gentrification because what’s happening is we’re moving people out of their neighborhoods in ways that in fact make to sense. They’re being bought out. You cannot find a place to live.”
8:52 p.m. Warren touts a pro-public school agenda
Responding to a question about education — and how African American students in South Carolina score worse than white students on national assessments — Warren said a president can make a “big difference” in their choice of Secretary of Education.
“My secretary of education will be someone who has taught in public school,” she said. “My secretary of education will be someone who believes in public education. And my secretary of education will believe that public dollars should stay in public schools.”
She then went on to boost her proposal to invest $800 billion in public schools.
8:46 p.m. Klobuchar touts her Midwestern roots on gun control
Klobuchar said that her Midwestern appeal, and her history on gun control, would help her take on gun control issues.
“The way we do it is having someone leading the ticket from a part of the country where we actually need the votes,” Klobuchar said. “So I have long supported the assault weapon ban. I am the author of the bill to close the Boyfriend Loophole that says that domestic abusers can’t go out and get an AK-47.”
Biden sparred with Klobuchar, saying that loophole was the only thing he couldn’t get covered in the Violence Against Women’s Act, which he was a proponent for. Klobuchar touted that she is from a “proud hunting state,” which gives her an edge in the middle of the country.
“We have to win in the middle of the country,” Klobuchar said. “While everyone talks about winning rural areas, suburban areas, I’m the only one up here with a receipts that has actually repeatedly, while being for the assault assault weapon ban, won in Republican congressional districts over and over again.”
8:45 p.m. Sanders concedes to Biden, saying his rejection of the Brady Bill was a “bad vote”
Sanders responded to Biden’s attacks on his voting record for the Brady Bill, admitting it was a “bad vote.”
He defended himself by referencing his support of a ban on assault weapons 30 years ago, saying it was the reason he “likely lost a race for the one seat for Congress in Vermont.”
“Right now, my view is we need to expand background checks, end the gun show loophole and do what the American people want — not what the NRA wants,” he said.
8:49 p.m. Buttigieg hits Sanders over opposition to repealing filibuster
In one of the many attacks on Sanders, Buttigieg took aim at the Vermont senator’s opposition to getting rid of the filibuster, a position that sets him apart from a number of his Democratic rivals.
“I’m definitely on board with the part about ending up somebody from the middle of the country, but I want to come back to the question about the filibuster because this is not some long-ago bad vote that Bernie Sanders took,” he said.
“This is a current bad position that Bernie Sanders holds,” Buttigieg continued. “And we’re in South Carolina. How are we going to deliver a revolution if you won’t even support a rule change?”
8:45 p.m. Warren calls for a roll back of the filibuster.
In the midst of a conversation about gun legislation, Warren took a veiled jab at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose Senate has not taken up gun reform legislation and called for a slash of the filibuster in the Senate.
“I’ve been in the Senate. What I’ve seen: gun safety legislation introduced, get a majority and then doesn’t pass because of the filibuster. Understand this: The filibuster is giving a veto to the gun industry.”
A centerpiece of Warren’s platform is rolling back the filibuster, which she argues blocks legislation by not allowing for a majority vote to be cast.
“Until we’re willing to dig in and say that if Mitch Mcconnell is going to do to the next Democratic president what he did to President Obama, and that is try to block every single thing he does, that we are willing to roll back the filibuster, go with the majority vote, and do what needs to be done for the American people,” she said.
8:35 p.m. ‘A progressive agenda is popular,’ Warren contends
Amid an onslaught of attacks on Sanders, as a number of his rivals underscored the party’s fears of embracing a democratic socialist as the nominee and the effect on down-ballot races, Warren defended her progressive ally, arguing, “a progressive agenda is popular.”
“We talk about how to build a future,” she continued. “That’s what matters. I talk to people in selfie lines every day who tell me about the importance of getting real help on health care. It’s why I also have a way to pay for health care that doesn’t raise taxes on middle-class families. But it’s so much more than that. It’s Democrats. We need to speak to the future we can build together.”
Positioning herself as a uniter, Warren ended by saying, “We need to talk about our aspirations, our hopes. This is a moment to choose hope over fear.”
8:29 p.m. Buttigieg raises party fears of a Sanders nomination
Buttigieg discussed the down-ballot effects of a nomination of the progressive Sanders, saying that it would lead to a Congress controlled by Republicans.
“The time has come to stop acting like the presidency is the only office that matters,” Buttigieg said.
In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats secured a majority in the House with the help of many moderate Democrats in districts that Trump won in 2016. Buttigieg cited those Democrats, saying to Sanders that, “they are running away from your platform as fast as they possibly can.”
8:29 p.m. Steyer warns against ideological divide in Democratic Party
Amid a heated dispute between Sanders and Buttigieg, Steyer interjected to call out the ideological differences currently dividing the party, warning against the “risk” of a party that “has decided that we’re either going to support someone who is a democratic socialist or somebody who has a long history of being a Republican.”
“Let me say that I got into this race because I wanted to fight for economic justice, for racial justice and to make sure we had climate justice for the American people,” he said. “And I am scared. If we cannot pull this party together, if we go to one of those extremes, we take a terrible risk of re-electing Donald Trump.”
8:25 p.m. Klobuchar calls Sanders’ health care plan ‘broken promises’
When questioned on how he would find the money for his $30 million spending on Medicare for All, Sanders dodged the specifics of where it would come from.
“How many hours do you have?” he responded to moderators.
Sanders later gave the option of a “7.5% payroll tax on employers,” saying it would save them “substantial sums of money.”
Klobuchar interjected, saying his math “didn’t add up,” later calling his proposals “a bunch of broken promises that sound good on bumper stickers.”
She said she would take on pharmaceuticals and pay for better long-term care.
8:21 p.m. Bloomberg addresses the NDAs and other allegations from women at his company
Bloomberg addressed a question from a moderator about non-disclosure agreements with women from his company, an ongoing point of criticism against his campaign.
“What happened here is we went back 40 years and we could only find three cases where women said they were uncomfortable,” Bloomberg said. “Nobody accused me of anything other than making a comment or two.”
Warren also attacked him over reports that he told a pregnant female employee to, “kill it,” but Bloomberg said that those reports were false.
“I never said it, period, end of story,” Bloomberg said. “When I was accused of doing it, we couldn’t figure out what she was talking about.”
Bloomberg has repeatedly denied saying those words to the woman. The allegations gained attention through a discrimination lawsuit that was settled out of court.
8:20 p.m. Warren calls out Bloomberg for funding right-wing candidates
Bloomberg, who just became a registered Democrat in 2018, has given large sums of his billions to candidates running for Congress, some of them Republicans.
“In 2016, he dumped $12 million into the Pennsylvania senate race to help re-elect an anti-choice, right-wing Republican senator,” Warren said.
“In 2012, he scooped in to try to defend another Republican senator against a woman challenger. That was me. It didn’t work, but he tried hard,” she said to applause.
8:17 p.m. Biden confidently asserts ‘I intend to win South Carolina’
Biden was asked about his slipping poll numbers among the black community, and Sanders’ rise that puts him in “striking distance” of Biden, to which he responded, “I’ve earned the vote, I’ve worked like the devil to earn the vote of the African American community, not just here but across the country. I’ve been coming here for years and years.”
Biden then said, with confidence, that he intends to emerge victorious on Saturday, regardless of Sanders’ momentum.
I don’t expect anything. I plan to earn the vote,” Biden continued. “I’m here to earn it. But, folks, I intend to win South Carolina, and I will win the African American vote here in South Carolina.”
He was also pressed on if he will continue his campaign if he doesn’t win the Palmetto state, but he deflected, saying, “I will win South Carolina.”
8:12 p.m. Biden hits Sanders for reportedly seeking to primary Obama in 2012
In one of the early knocks against Sanders, Biden attacked his rival for allegedly seeking to primary against President Barack Obama in 2012.
“Being progressive, he talked Barack Obama, he wanted a primary — he said we should primary Barack Obama. Someone should,” Biden said.
Sanders only responded, “I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight.”
8:11 p.m. Buttigieg pushes back on attacks against his campaign fundraising
Sanders went after Buttigieg for accepting campaign donations from wealthy donors. But Buttigieg countered the attack, and said that grassroots contributions are the “lifeblood” of his campaign.
“In Charleston alone, just in Charleston, over 2,000 people have contributed to my campaign,” Buttigieg said.
8:10 p.m. Biden attacks Sanders for voting record on Brady Bill, referencing Emmanuel Church shooting
Biden took a jab at Sanders for his voting record on the Brady Bill, which would create a system of background checks and a waiting period for handgun purchases.
Biden referenced a 2015 shooting at the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, where nine African Americans were shot dead by a gunman.
“Walking distance from here is Emmanuel Church,” Biden said. “Nine people shot dead by a white supremacist. Bernie voted five times against the Brady Bill and wanted a waiting period of 12 hours. I’m not saying he’s responsible for the nine deaths, but that man would not have been able to get that weapon with the waiting period that I suggested until you are cleared.”
8:10 p.m. Warren: We need a president who will ‘dig in, do the hard work, and actually get it done’
Warren went after Sanders’ and his avoidance to put a price tag on his health care plan, saying that her transparency on the details of a “Medicare for All” platform led her to getting criticized on the cost, while Sanders has avoided that criticism.
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“Bernie and I both want to see universal health care. But Bernie’s plan doesn’t explain how to get there, doesn’t show how we’re going to get enough allies into it and doesn’t show enough about how we’re going to pay for it,” she said. “I dug in. I did the work. And then Bernie’s team trashed me for it.”
8:08 p.m. Bloomberg digs at Sanders over Russian interference
After the Washington Post reported that Sanders was briefed on Russian interference in the 2020 campaign, particularly, to boost him campaign, Bloomberg immediately took a swipe at Sanders for that revelation.
“Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States, and that’s why Russia is helping you get elected,” Bloomberg said to Sanders.
“Let me tell Mr. Putin, okay, I’m not a good friend of President Xi China…and let me tell Mr. Putin who interfered in the 2016 election, try to bring Americans against Americans. Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me, you’re not going to interfere in any more American elections,” Sanders said.
8:05 p.m. Sanders fields first question on economy
Sanders, in the first question of the night, argues that his progressive platform will create an “economy for all.”
“The economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg and other billionaires,” Sanders said. “For the ordinary American, things are not so good. …That is not an economy that’s working for the American people. That’s an economy working for the 1%. We’re going to create an economy.”
8 p.m. Seven candidates taking the stage in debate showdown
The seven presidential contenders are set to go head-to-head, following a highly-contentious debate in Las Vegas last week on a smaller stage.
The matchup Tuesday night is the last debate before South Carolina’s primary on Saturday, and a week before the race expands onto a national map on Super Tuesday, when more than one-third of the delegates will be up for grabs.
With Sanders emerging as the clear front-runner after back-to-back wins in two early contests, he’s expected to face the most friendly fire, but the night will also be key for Biden, who since the start of his campaign, has been banking on a win in the Palmetto State to give him the momentum heading into the 15 contests on March 3.
Amid newly solidified front-runner status, Bernie Sanders poised to be top target at debate
The last debate may have been a pile on for Bloomberg, but with a decisive victory in Nevada under his belt, Sanders has solidified his front-runner status in the Democratic primary and his competitors have sharpened their attacks on the Vermont senator, questioning his electability in the lead-up to Tuesday night’s debate in South Carolina.
“I’d like whomever the Democrat is to beat Donald Trump. I’d vote for Mickey Mouse over Donald Trump,” former Vice President Joe Biden, who finished second in Nevada, said on MSNBC Sunday. “I don’t think (Sanders) can beat Donald Trump, and … get a Democratic Senate and keep a Democratic House.”
And while the knives may be out and aimed at Sanders, this debate is an opportunity for the candidates to differentiate themselves on a national stage ahead of the Saturday primary and Super Tuesday.
Both Buttigieg and Klobuchar have questioned Sanders’ ability to bring a big enough coalition of voters together to beat Trump in the general election, with Buttigieg saying Sanders’ brand of politics is “my way or the highway.”
But the two candidates are sure to face questions about their own electability and ability to appeal to a diverse electorate, given about 60% of South Carolina Democratic primary voters were black in the 2016 election, according to ABC News exit poll results.
In Nevada, Buttigieg and Klobuchar were only supported by 2% and 3%, respectively, of black caucusgoers, according to entrance poll results, compared to 39% who supported Biden and 27% who supported Sanders.
Bloomberg also has something to prove. In the last debate, while he took on Sanders, the billionaire struggled to take the heat from his rivals, even admitting on MSNBC Sunday, “It wasn’t my best night.”
He hasn’t campaigned or been on the ballots in the early voting states, including the upcoming primary in South Carolina, so the debates are his chance to prove that he’s the best candidate to take on Trump in the general election as he’s claimed in many of his hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of television ads.
His campaign rescheduled a Monday CNN town hall so that he could prepare for the debate.
“The country can’t afford to let Bernie Sanders skate by another debate without a focus on his extreme record,” spokeswoman Galia Slayen said in a statement provided to ABC News.
With Sanders’ two clean wins, and lead in the delegate race, Bloomberg may be spared from attacks on his extreme wealth and record on women and race as the moderates on stage pivot to take on the Democratic front-runner, who doesn’t even identify as a Democrat in the Senate.
Even Warren, the only other candidate in the race to support a government-run health care system, sought to differentiate herself from her liberal comrade when asked by a supporter at an event in Denver about how people can benefit from democratic socialism.
“I appreciate the question, but you’ve got the wrong person to ask about this,” Warren said Sunday. “I’m not a democratic socialist. I believe in the markets.”
While Warren’s had less-than-stellar results out of the first contests of the cycle, her campaign raised more than $5 million in the 24 hours following the Las Vegas debate — when Warren didn’t hold back, taking on several of her competitors. Another fundraising night like that would be welcome for the campaign, which spent more than twice the amount it raised in January, ending that month with $2.3 million in cash on hand, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filing.
Having failed to qualify for the last debate in Las Vegas, a strong showing from Steyer could put him on the path to scoring delegates — and momentum — in Saturday’s primary, his last opportunity to do so before Super Tuesday after a lackluster finish in Nevada.
The billionaire has spent more than $22 million on radio and television ad buys in South Carolina, according to ad data analysis from CMAG, and his investment has paid off, according to polling. In October, Winthrop University’s poll had Steyer at just 2% support among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters. Less than a week ago, he was at 15% among the same group, trailing only Biden and Sanders.
While Steyer has made gains in the Palmetto State, Biden — who’s hoping for a resounding win on Saturday — has remained confident the billionaire wouldn’t spoil his victory. He told ABC News on Monday that he can win the state “by plenty.”
And in North Charleston on Sunday, Biden was asked by a reporter how much of the vote Steyer would “take” from him this weekend.
“I think the same amount he took in Nevada. Nothing,” Biden quipped. Steyer finished in fifth place.
Unlike Nevada, there’s no early voting in South Carolina, so this debate is timed to potentially sway voters. A strong showing at the Gaillard Center could bolster the former vice president as he tries to smash the narrative that he’s lost his standing in the southern state where he once overwhelmingly led in polls.
ABC News’ Soo Rin Kim contributed to this report.
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