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Democrats race to slow Sanders’ momentum in South Carolina debate

As the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination for president, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, center, took a lot of heat from other candidates at Tuesday’s debate in Charleston, S.C. But he also hit back hard at his rivals. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
As the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination for president, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, center, took a lot of heat from other candidates at Tuesday’s debate in Charleston, S.C. But he also hit back hard at his rivals. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Bernie Sanders faced a barrage of attacks Tuesday as his Democratic rivals aggressively tried to slow his ascent in the polls, fearing this could be the last chance to halt his momentum before he builds an impregnable delegate lead in the race for the party’s presidential nomination.

Also in the crosshairs was former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who was seeking a moment of redemption after a brutal debate performance last week but was on the receiving end of sharp barbs from everyone else on the stage during another shaky appearance.

The seven candidates tore into each other throughout the messy debate with a ferocity that rivaled last week’s showdown in Las Vegas, a clash dominated at times by escalating cross-talk from candidates who defied moderators who couldn’t maintain consistent control of the stage.

The bracing back-and-forth reflected the sense of urgency from candidates to make what could be a final impression to a national audience. The Charleston showdown is the last debate before South Carolina’s primary this weekend and the ramp-up that follows next week when 14 states hold nominating contests on Super Tuesday.

The swipes targeting the Vermont senator started almost as soon as the forum kicked off, as Bloomberg invoked reports that Russia is trying to interfere to help Sanders’ campaign, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized him for failing to combat ruthless corporate profiteers.

“Bernie and I both wanted to help rein in Wall Street. In 2008, we both got our chance. But I dug in, I fought the big banks, I built the coalitions and I won,” said Warren, Sanders’ top adversary for liberal supporters.

Far from staying above the fray, Sanders quickly went on the offensive against Bloomberg, who he accused of benefiting from an economy built to be “pretty great” for billionaires. He brought up his rival’s immense wealth again and again.

“Mayor Bloomberg has a solid and strong and enthusiastic base of support,” Sanders said in one of his most biting remarks. “The problem is they are all billionaires.”

Swinging back, Bloomberg brought up Democratic fears that Sanders could risk the party’s gains in more moderate areas with a liberal platform that promises government-run health care and social and economic justice policies.

“Can anyone in this room see any moderate and Republican voters going over to him?” the former mayor asked. “You have to do that to win.”

The debate also saw a more assertive former Vice President Joe Biden, who is facing a do-or-die moment in South Carolina.

He frequently jostled with moderators and repeatedly took on Sanders, including one bitter exchange that questioned the senator’s vote on legislation that exempted gun manufacturers from some legal challenges.

“I want to tell you if I’m elected: NRA, I’m coming for you,” said Biden, his voice rising. “And, gun manufacturers, I’m going to take you on and I’m going to beat you.”

And in a searing attack, he brought up the 2015 mass killing at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church - just a short walk from the debate hall - to challenge Sanders on his past opposition to mandatory waiting periods for gun purchases.

“I’m not saying he’s responsible for the nine deaths,” he said of the victims of the shooting, “but that man would not have been able to get that weapon if the waiting period had been what I suggest.”

‘Wonder why?’

Chances are dwindling to halt the rise of Sanders, who has emerged as the unquestioned front-runner after victories in New Hampshire and Nevada proved he could build durable political coalitions to defeat President Donald Trump. Sanders seemed to relish the moment, mocking his opponents for the intense focus on him.

“I’m hearing my name being mentioned a lot — I wonder why?” he offered, sarcastically.

Sanders’ dominant victory in Nevada transformed him from an insurgent candidate to the undeniable Democratic leader — and forced him to take on the unusual position of being the front-runner.

His more moderate rivals kept the heat on Sanders, mindful that a string of victories over the next week would give him an unassailable lead in Democratic delegates. The Georgia primary looms on March 24, and early voting in the contest begins Monday.

Even before the debate, Bloomberg’s campaign released an ad criticizing Sanders’ gun control policies and Biden accused him of being disloyal to former President Barack Obama. Their allies knocked Sanders’ comments this week on “60 Minutes” in which he appeared to praise Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s education agenda.

Trump supporters joined the fray. Vice President Mike Pence criticized Sanders' "radical" comments about Castro, while Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr warned voters at a Charleston event that the Vermont senator should "really terrify folks." U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler unveiled an ad Tuesday promising to "stop Bernie Sanders' socialism."

‘I will win’

The Vermont senator seized leader-of-the-pack status from Biden, who is staking his campaign on South Carolina, where he holds narrowing leads in the polls. Pressed on whether he would continue his bid if he lost Saturday’s vote, Biden was unequivocal: “I will win South Carolina.”

The other four candidates on the stage also face desperate scenarios. After her most forceful debate performance last week, Warren tried to stay on the offensive Tuesday to revive her stagnating campaign, sometimes interrupting moderators.

“Can we just speak up anytime we want to?” a visibly frustrated Biden said.

Fighting for a share of the spotlight were former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, two mainstream candidates who tried to define themselves as the most formidable adversaries to Sanders.

Buttigieg laced into Sanders in his most bruising manner yet, warning that his nomination would risk the party’s chances at capturing the U.S. Senate and their hold on the U.S. House.

“They are running away from your platform as fast as they possibly can,” Buttigieg said of moderate congressional Democrats elected in 2018 who are worried about Sanders’ rise.

They were joined this time by Tom Steyer, another billionaire who has unleashed his spending power in South Carolina to finance one of the larger teams of operatives in the state and launch a blizzard of advertising none of his opponents can match.


For Bloomberg, the Charleston debate offered a chance to rebound after last week’s debate. Asked about how to put skepticism over his campaign to rest, he brought up the endorsements of more than 100 black officials in New York.

“People will tell you it’s a lot better city today,” he said of his track record over three terms.

But he struggled again with another uneven performance, drawing groans from the crowd when he appeared to make a joke about his poor performance last week.

“I really am surprised,” he said, “that all of my fellow contestants up here, because I would have thought after I did such a good job in beating them last week that they would be a little bit afraid to do that.”

He confronted some of the sharpest attacks from Warren, who called him the “riskiest candidate” on the debate stage and pressed him, again, to release women who accused him of sexist remarks from nondisclosure agreements.

Pushing back, Bloomberg said he was tiring of "relitigating" the issue and that he recently released three women from the legal restraints. He then criticized Warren for pressing her attack.

“The trouble is, with this senator, enough is never enough,” Bloomberg said. “We did what she asked. And thank you, we probably made the world better because of it.”

Big week

The next week could be crucial in selecting the Democratic nominee who will face President Donald Trump in November.

On Saturday, voters in South Carolina will go to the polls.

Two days later, early voting will begin in Georgia for its presidential preference primary on March 24.

The day after that will be Super Tuesday, when the choice of candidates will fall to voters in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia. Democrats Abroad will also vote.