Bernie Sanders entered the South Carolina Democratic debate as the party’s presidential front-runner and got treated like it by his 2020 rivals, facing attacks over the cost of his healthcare plans and forced to defend his praise of Cuba’s communist regime.
The Vermont senator on Tuesday bore the brunt of the incoming from his opponents seeking the right to challenge President Trump in November — former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, entrepreneur Tom Steyer, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Following last week’s debate in Nevada, an amped-up affair as many of the candidates come under pressure to drop out of the Democratic race for the White House, Tuesday night’s iteration devolved into a messy food fight over politics and policy.
Sanders, having captured the most delegates after the first three nominating contests, came ready for a deluge of salvos after seeing his competitors pounce on Bloomberg in Nevada.
“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight. I wonder why,” the 78-year-old said.
During his opening, Sanders argued he was best positioned to thump Trump in the fall given his credibility with an economic message, because for “the ordinary American, things are not so good,” a swipe at billionaire Bloomberg.
The former mayor, also 78 and another top contender to become the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer based on polls since he hasn’t been on a ballot or caucus card yet, didn’t shy away from hitting back with force.
“Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States, and that’s why Russia is helping you get elected, so you’ll lose to him,” he said to Sanders.
Buttigieg, a fellow former mayor, asked the boisterous crowd, compared to previous outings, to imagine a general election between Sanders and Trump if they thought the “last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting.”
Biden, conversely, took a jab at Sanders over his gun control platform, an important issue in South Carolina after the 2015 Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting, which occurred near where the debate was held at Charleston Gaillard Center.
Even Steyer, who has been the subject of GIFs as he’s tried to become friends with Sanders on the campaign trail, stuck in a knife.
“Bernie Sanders’s analysis is right. The difference is I don’t like his solutions. I don’t believe that a government takeover of large parts of the economy makes any sense for working people or for families,” the 62-year-old said.
Warren, while beginning to distance herself from Sanders last week as the primary tightens, presented her boldest case against her ideological ally.
“I think I would make a better president than Bernie. And the reason for that is that getting a progressive agenda enacted is going to be really hard, and it’s going to take someone who digs into the details to make it happen,” the senator, 70, said.
Sanders, predicting he’d face scrutiny over the lack of information regarding his policy prescriptions, released costing plans late Monday, but they’ve been criticized for not financing the breadth of his proposals.
Biden, who for once demanded and commanded time unlike Klobuchar, who had a quiet night, was pressed on his slipping support among black Democrats, a constituency he’s touted since announcing his candidacy given how crucial the electorate is to the party if it wants to take back the White House.
“I don’t expect anything. I plan to earn the vote. I intend to win South Carolina, and I will win the African American vote here,” the 77-year-old said, also lashing out at Steyer multiple times as the former hedge fund manager eats into his support in the state.
Race was a central thread in the conversation as black Democrats represent the majority of those who have or will vote on Saturday.
Buttigieg, 38, added, “I’m conscious of the fact that there are seven white people on this stage talking about racial justice.” The mayor, Klobuchar, and Warren have all struggled to gain traction with minority Democrats this cycle.
Bloomberg, who was the main target of his rivals in Nevada, responded to their undermining of his candidacy, saying he has the experience, record, and resources to beat Trump in November, though he was booed for dredging up 9/11.
In particular, he took offense at Warren, who brought up nondisclosure documents he’s signed with women who lodged sexism complaints against him. This week, after she wrote a draft contract, he agreed to release three women from their obligations so they could speak to the media if they wanted to.
“We just cannot continue to relitigate this,” he said.
Buttigieg countered, “If you get elected, you’ll relitigate this all year!”
After two months cluttered with debates ahead of voting in the early-nominating states, the qualifying hopefuls will next meet on March 15 in Phoenix, Arizona.