CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Democratic presidential candidates delivered a barrage of criticism against their party’s emerging front-runner, Sen. Bernie Sanders, at a debate on Tuesday night, casting him as a divisive figure with unrealistic ideas, even as they continued to batter Michael Bloomberg for his extreme wealth, his record on policing and behavior toward women.
In a messy South Carolina forum, characterized by frequent interruptions, angry cross talk and theatrical hand-waving, Sanders faced the most serious test so far of his bid to lead the Democratic Party into the general election. His rivals charged at him on multiple fronts, including his history of opposing certain forms of gun control, his plans for single-payer health care and, most of all, his odds of beating President Donald Trump.
But the mood of combat enveloped candidates besides than Sanders, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts again castigating Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, in vivid terms about his past support for Republicans and allegations that he had pressured an employee to have an abortion, a charge Bloomberg vehemently denied. And in an explosive manifestation of a bitter rivalry for South Carolina’s voters, former Vice President Joe Biden rebuked Tom Steyer, a billionaire spending heavily in South Carolina, for having invested in the past in private prison companies.
It was Sanders, however, who had the roughest night: Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, warned that nominating Sanders would not only cost Democrats their chance to capture the White House, but also jeopardize their majority in the House and their chance of taking the Senate.
Pointing to the congressional Democrats elected in 2018, Buttigieg told Sanders, “They are running away from your platform as fast as they possibly can.”
Bloomberg joined in, saying of Sanders: “Can anybody in this room imagine moderate Republicans going over and voting for him?”
Biden, fighting for survival in the state on which he has staked his candidacy, delivered perhaps the most searing critique of Sanders, invoking the 2015 massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church here in Charleston to confront Sanders for his mixed record on guns.
“Nine people shot dead by a white supremacist,” Biden said, rebuking Sanders for his past opposition to waiting periods for gun purchasers: “I’m not saying he’s responsible for the nine deaths, but that man would not have been able to get that weapon if the waiting period had been what I suggest.”
Sanders and Bloomberg both answered their critics somewhat sparingly, choosing a handful of attacks to parry without delivering point-by-point rebuttals.
Addressing concerns about his electability, Sanders, a Vermont liberal, claimed that in the overwhelming majority of polls, he came out ahead of Trump. He responded forcefully to an attack by Bloomberg claiming that the Russian government was seeking to buoy Sanders’ campaign, throwing back at Bloomberg the former mayor’s history of making laudatory remarks about President Xi Jinping of China.
On display, too, was Warren’s dual challenge as she fights for national momentum ahead of next week’s Super Tuesday contests: On the one hand, she is plainly eager to keep up a battle against Bloomberg that has delighted her supporters and reinvigorated her candidacy. At the same time, she must contend, perhaps more urgently, with the fast and formidable rise of Sanders on the left — a force she tried to counter by casting herself as a more accomplished progressive.
She pointed to their shared history of battling Wall Street: “In 2008, we both got our chance,” Warren said, “but I dug in, I fought the big banks, I built the coalitions and I won.”
For the second consecutive debate, Bloomberg visibly sighed and rolled his eyes as Warren assailed his variegated political history and demanded fuller disclosure from Bloomberg’s company about its treatment of women. Citing his history of giving large campaign contributions to Republicans, Warren said, “The core of the Democratic Party will never trust him.”
Bloomberg tried to pivot away from Warren’s criticism to make an argument about his own experience, alluding to his role taking over New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “I have the experience, I have the resources and I have the record,” Bloomberg said, “and all of the sideshows that the senator wants to bring up have nothing to do with that.”
But as in the last debate, Bloomberg’s loose phrasing offered Warren the chance to throw a hard counterpunch: What Bloomberg called a “sideshow,” she said, involved matters as serious as pregnancy discrimination.
Still, Bloomberg was clearly the secondary target of the night. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Buttigieg confronted Sanders, boring in on him over his expansive policy proposals and the risk they said he would pose.
“The math does not add up,” said Klobuchar, arguing that Sanders’ agenda amounted to “a bunch of broken promises that sound good on bumper stickers. Inserting himself, Buttigieg pointed out that the front-runner had no support from the freshman lawmakers who gave House Democrats their majority in 2018.
Soon, though, the debate devolved into something of a rhetorical melee, the candidates talking, and nearly shouting, over another.
Eventually Sanders was able to speak and cited studies indicating that “Medicare for All will save money,” but before long he was facing more incoming from Bloomberg, who called the long-term consequences of a Sanders nomination and Trump reelection a “catastrophe.”
When Sanders was able to reply, he castigated Bloomberg for only having the support of billionaires.
Similarly, when Sanders was asked about a vote he cast to protect gun manufacturers, the senator initially responded by saying “Joe has voted for terrible trade agreements” and was met with boos.
In a sign that Steyer is making inroads with South Carolina’s black voters, the former vice president also took on the billionaire and first-time candidate, noting that Steyer had invested in private prisons that “hogtied young men.”
Stung by the attack, Steyer said he sold his stock in private prisons and sought to highlight Biden’s support for the hard-line 1990s crime bill. But Biden interrupted him and tagged him with a new nickname for changing his mind on private prisons: “Tommy Come Lately.”
This debate, the 10th of the primary season, was the first time that the Democratic candidates gathered with a measure of clarity about who was in command of the race. Coming off his landslide win in Nevada, and successes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders is the clear front-runner for the nomination. What is less clear is who may emerge as his most formidable opponent.
After worse-than-expected showings in the first two states, Biden is hoping to parlay his second-place finish in Nevada into a victory in South Carolina, a state he has long portrayed as his firewall. His candidacy depends on it. Should the former vice president win here, he could go into the 14 states and one territory voting this coming Tuesday as the top alternative to Sanders.
Biden is counting on strong support from this state’s black community, which will make up over half the primary electorate, to deliver him a victory on Saturday. And to this end, he is counting on a boost from Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina’s most prominent African American lawmaker, who has told associates he will endorse Biden on Wednesday.
Yet public polls show Sanders is cutting into Biden’s lead in South Carolina and, after months of playing down expectations in a state where the Vermont senator was routed in 2016, his campaign is competing to win here. It is airing an ad featuring a local black woman who said she switched her support to Sanders from Biden. And Sanders’s staff has scheduled a series of rallies in the state this week, an investment of time that will take candidate away from larger Super Tuesday states.
Should Biden, who is so short on cash that he is not airing ads in any of the states casting ballots next week, lose in South Carolina, he could very well prompt a shift of moderate Democratic support to Bloomberg.
Yet Bloomberg was facing a mortal test of his own, after a disastrous first debate in Las Vegas last week that threatened to undo much of his progress in the Democratic race. An extended onslaught from Warren left Bloomberg flailing to respond, most prominently on the matter of nondisclosure agreements that he and his company have reached over the years with women who made allegations of harassment and discrimination.
After that forum Bloomberg’s negative ratings soared overnight, according to people briefed on polling conducted by multiple campaigns. Polling in the Super Tuesday states still suggests that Bloomberg could be in a position to beat Biden and Sanders in several key battlegrounds, but the former New York mayor’s advisers have acknowledged that the trajectory of his candidacy could turn on his performance in the debate here.
Bloomberg’s campaign has sought in recent days to pursue a direct clash with Sanders, attacking his past opposition to certain forms of gun control and his praise for aspects of Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba. But Bloomberg has not yet unleashed the kind of heavily funded advertising blitz, targeting Sanders, that moderate party leaders have been hoping for.
Buttigieg was also under pressure, though not because there was any doubt he would fail to deliver yet another crisp, if heavily rehearsed, debate performance. After proving his skeptics wrong by finishing at the top in Iowa and a close second to Sanders in New Hampshire, however, the former South Bend mayor vindicated those doubters by showing little capacity in Nevada to broaden his appeal with nonwhite voters.
He is facing the same questions in South Carolina. If he fares no better with racial minorities here, it will only increase the volume on the demands that he exit the race and clear the way for a moderate Democrat who can appeal to voters of color.
Klobuchar is facing similar criticism for remaining in the race after her strong finish in New Hampshire did little to lift her in Nevada. She has little support in South Carolina and has begun spending money to advertise in her native Minnesota, which votes next week and where Sanders is planning to visit in an effort to win and effectively push her out of the race.
Sanders is also aiming to chase out Warren. Like some of her rivals, Warren has gained little traction with black voters and is facing long odds in South Carolina.
It is not clear if Steyer will do the same, particularly if he does not do well in South Carolina. He has spent more than any of the candidates competing in the state and has made some inroads in the polls. Yet after offering generous contracts to a number of black political leaders here, he has drawn criticism from Democrats about what some see as pay-to-play politics.