CHARLESTON, S.C. — Sen. Bernie Sanders came under withering and sustained criticism during Tuesday night’s presidential debate, as his six rivals launched urgent attempts to stop the candidate who has the clearest path to the Democratic nomination.
Standing at center stage for the first time, a reflection of his newfound front-runner status, Sanders faced attacks from all sides on matters including his inconsistent record on gun control, his praise for leftist dictators, the cost of his signature Medicare-for-all plan and the damage other candidates believe he would inflict on the Democratic Party if he were the nominee.
“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight!” Sanders (I-Vt.) said, with a mixture of glee and sarcasm. “I wonder why?”
The 10th Democratic presidential debate came at a critical moment ahead of both South Carolina’s primary on Saturday and, three days later, Super Tuesday, when a third of the party’s delegates are up for grabs across 14 states.
With the future of several of the campaigns hanging in the balance, the candidates let loose, throwing their arms in the air and shouting over one another, presenting a cacophony from a party that, as it approaches its biggest voting day, has made no strides in its quest to figure out where it’s headed. They debated capitalism and socialism, a host of liberal ideas and cautions about their cost, struck at one another’s pasts and questioned the legitimacy of their promises for the future.
With the candidates pivoting off Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) cast herself as a more effective version of her liberal rival. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg argued that Sanders would lose to President Trump; former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg said he would be a drag on the party’s down-ballot candidates; and former vice president Joe Biden struck at Sanders’s record on gun control.
Sanders largely weathered the attacks, throwing counterpunches of his own, and at times seemed to relish the sudden attention after decades as an insurgent underdog pushing ideas from the sidelines.
He spared no criticisms of his own. Asked how he would be able to sell his brand of democratic socialism in a period of positive economic news, he replied, “Well, you’re right. The economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg and other billionaires.”
But, he added, after reciting statistics about the struggles of “ordinary” Americans: “That is not an economy that’s working for the American people. That’s an economy working for the 1 percent. We’re going to create an economy for all, not just wealthy campaign contributors.”
Tuesday’s debate marked a chance at redemption for Bloomberg, who will not appear on a ballot until Super Tuesday but has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in ads touting his candidacy and criticizing Trump. His first debate, last week in Las Vegas, was disastrous, as he struggled to offer a defense of his wealth, his record of sexist remarks, and a stop-and-frisk policing policy widely seen as racist. His unusual electoral strategy and extravagant spending also earned him scorn from his opponents, who accused him of trying to buy the presidency.
Throughout the debate, Bloomberg appeared more steady even as rivals reiterated their critiques. He eagerly jumped in to defend his record and attempted to go on offense against Sanders and others who criticized him. He knocked Sanders over reports that Russians were attempting to help his presidential campaign in an effort to disrupt the Democratic nominating contest.
“Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States,” Bloomberg said. “And that’s why Russia is helping you get elected, so you will lose to him.”
Buttigieg jumped in, criticizing Sanders as a divisive figure at a time when he suggested that voters want a calming force.
“The Russians want chaos,” Buttigieg said. “You think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting? Imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) used the chaos onstage to drive a point that she has tried to make throughout the campaign, casting herself as a common-sense civil leader who embodies Minnesota nice.
“If we spend the next four months tearing our party apart, we’re going to watch Donald Trump spend the next four years tearing our country apart,” she said at one point.
No candidate was in more need of a strong performance than Biden, who has staked his candidacy on winning South Carolina to reverse a string of losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
His frustration showed as he repeatedly complained about the lack of decorum onstage.
“I note how you cut me off all the time, but I’m not going to be quiet anymore,” he told the moderators at one point.
“Gentlemen don’t get very well treated up here,” he directed at another.
Biden went after Sanders early, invoking Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the house of worship across the street from where the debate was taking place and where a white supremacist killed nine parishioners in 2015 as they prayed.
“I’m not saying he’s responsible for the nine deaths, but that man would not have been able to get that weapon with a waiting period,” Biden said, adding that Sanders had voted against gun-control legislation five times.
He also pointed out statements Sanders made about having a primary challenge to President Barack Obama in 2012. And he was also blunt in his criticism of Sanders’s effectiveness: “Bernie, in fact, hasn’t passed much of anything.”
Warren also went after Sanders, her ideological ally on the party’s left flank, by repeatedly criticizing his Senate career as ineffective.
“Bernie is winning right now because the Democratic Party is a progressive party and progressive ideas are popular ideas even if there are a lot of people in this stage we don’t want to say so,” Warren said.
“Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better president than Bernie,” Warren added, saying that she focuses on details. Using health care as an example, she pointed out that she tried to fill in gaps in Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan. “I dug in, I did the work, and then Bernie’s team trashed me for it,” Warren said.
Billionaire Tom Steyer, back on the debate stage after failing to make the cut in Nevada, has spent more money advertising in South Carolina than any other candidate. He telegraphed before the debate that he would hit Sanders on his democratic socialist policies, arguing that they would be bad for Americans.
“I am scared,” he said at one point, referring to Democrats’ potential choice between Sanders and Bloomberg, whom he described as having a “long history” as a Republican.
The candidates spent months largely ignoring Sanders as other candidates rose and fell, alternately believing he would never gather the support he has and also wary of inflaming the ire of his passionate base. Yet the field in recent days has shed some of its unwillingness to criticize him.
They were given an opening by Sanders, who in an interview last weekend on CBS News’s “60 Minutes,” said that Fidel Castro should be given credit for literacy programs in Cuba, appearing to overlook his human rights record. Sanders’s rivals pounced, as did Democrats in Florida, where a significant portion of voters are immigrants from Cuba and other South American countries with autocratic rulers.
During the debate, Sanders defended himself by invoking the last Democratic president, who normalized relations with Cuba.
“What I said is what Barack Obama said in terms of Cuba: that Cuba made progress on education,” Sanders said.
Biden pounced, rejecting the parallels the senator from Vermont drew, while Buttigieg charged that Sanders was advocating outdated views. Democrats would not win, the former mayor said, “by reliving the Cold War.”
Bloomberg, using his well-funded campaign apparatus, has tried to steady himself since the last debate by responding to some of the attacks he earlier had failed to parry.
Bloomberg agreed Friday to release three women from nondisclosure agreements they had signed after they accused him of making inappropriate comments in the workplace.
Warren repeated her request from last week that Bloomberg release women who’ve complained of sexual harassment at his company from their nondisclosure agreements. Bloomberg noted that he let the three women out of their agreements and curtailed the use of NDAs at his company.
Warren continued to make the case that he must do more. Bloomberg quipped: “With this senator, enough is never enough. We cannot continue to re-litigate this every time.”
Bloomberg sounded somewhat more contrite about the matter than he did during the last debate, when he suggested that women who were offended by his comments didn’t like his jokes. Given another chance to explain himself, Bloomberg said that he was “probably wrong to make the jokes. I don’t remember what they were, so if it bothered them, I was wrong. I apologize. I’m sorry for that.”
But Bloomberg stumbled verbally as he attempted to take credit for the new Democratic House majority, saying he “bought” House members by donating about $100 million to fund campaigns. “All of the new Democrats that came in, put [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi in charge, and gave the Congress the ability to control this president — I bought,” said Bloomberg, before quickly correcting himself.
“I — I got them,” Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg attempted to show flashes of personality — at one point referencing the so-called Naked Cowboy of New York’s Times Square — and in another instance, using a very long wind-up, appeared to make a self-deprecating joke about his widely panned prior debate performance.
“I would have thought after I did such a good job in beating them last week,” he said with a wry smile, “that they’d be a little bit afraid to” appear on stage with him again.
The coronavirus that is threatening to become a world pandemic became a debate focus for the first time Tuesday, with Klobuchar encouraging people from the stage to pay attention to advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and announcing its website from the stage. Biden said he would work to address the outbreak in much the same way the Obama administration handled Ebola.
“I was part of making sure that pandemic didn’t get to the United States. Saved millions of lives,” he said. “We did it. We stopped it.”
Michael Kranish contributed to this report.
South Carolina holds its primary Saturday, and just days later comes Super Tuesday, when 14 states and American Samoa hold primaries. After March 3, votes will have been cast that determine about 38 percent of pledged delegates.
The candidates: The major candidates competing in South Carolina are former vice president Joe Biden; former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); and investor Tom Steyer. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg is not competing until Super Tuesday.
Policy: Candidates have laid out where they stand on a number of issues. Answer some of the questions yourself and see who agrees with you.
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