CHARLESTON, S.C. — Democrats threw everything but the kitchen sink at Bernie Sanders, and if the 10th debate here didn’t slow his march to the nomination it’s not clear anything will.
Mike Bloomberg told him Russia wants him to be the nominee so he can lose to President Donald Trump. Elizabeth Warren said she’d be a better president than him and took him to task for supporting the Senate filibuster. Joe Biden went after him for voting against gun control and floating a primary challenge against President Barack Obama in 2012. Pete Buttigieg said House Democrats are fleeing his agenda. Amy Klobuchar argued she’s the most anti-Sanders candidate on stage.
At one point, Sanders offered a knowing grin.
“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight. I wonder why!” the front-runner quipped.
Here’s how the candidates performed in a debate that repeatedly descended into yelling matches rife with interruptions that captured the tension of the larger contest.
Warren finally did Tuesday what she has been reluctant to do throughout the campaign: make an explicit case for why she’d be a better president than Sanders. She said they share progressive goals but that she knows how to be “effective.” She said she has a track record of building coalitions, like on passing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She took Sanders to task for refusing to call for ending the Senate filibuster, without naming him, and said it’d give the gun industry and oil companies a “veto” over legislation.
Yet the caution she applied to knocking Sanders marked a stark contrast to the fiery passion with which she attacked Bloomberg throughout the debate, including for his past support of Republican senators like Scott Brown, who Warren defeated in 2012.
Warren offered up some humility when asked about the biggest misconception of her: “I never was supposed to be on a stage like this.”
Biden was at his most passionate when he swooped in to disagree with Sanders that his remarks praising Fidel Castro’s literacy program were similar to what Obama has said in the past. He took pointed aim at Steyer — who has risen to double-digits in South Carolina with a blitz of advertising that has won over black voters — for having invested in private prisons. When Steyer noted that he has disavowed that move, Biden called him a “Tommy come lately.”
He pressed his case on gun control, saying that “I’m the only one that ever got it done nationally. I beat the NRA twice. I got assault weapons banned.” He recalled the nearby Mother Emanuel church, where “nine people [were] shot dead by a white supremacist.”
After repeatedly complaining about rivals interrupting and cross-talking, the former vice president offered up the unintentional laugh line of the night. After answering a question briefly without rambling on, he caught himself and said, “Why am I stopping? No one else stops.”
The former New York City mayor was immediately hit by Sanders, who said “Michael Bloomberg has a solid and strong and enthusiastic base of support. The problem is they’re all billionaires.” He punched back. “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 will lose to him,” he said. Bloomberg insisted a Sanders victory would cost Democrats the House and state legislatures, “and then, between gerrymandering and appointing judges, for the next 20 or 30 years, we’re going to live with this catastrophe.”
He tried to avoid getting into lengthy exchanges with Warren, noting at one point that he conceded to her demand to release women who have accused him of inappropriate comments from non-disclosure agreements. He made his pitch as a doer, saying he’s led a city that’s “bigger than most countries in the world.” “I have been training for this job since I stepped on the pile that was still smoldering on 9/11. I know what to do,” he said.
Buttigieg came armed with a litany of attack lines against Sanders, and delivered them one by one. He said Sanders’ health care math doesn’t work and that it “adds up to four more years of Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House.” Democratic candidates who captured the House, he said, “are not running on your platform, they are running away from your platform as fast as they can.” He joined Warren in knocking Sanders on the filibuster: “How are we going to deliver a revolution if you won’t even support a rule change?”
South Carolina is an important test for Buttigieg where he’s weakest — with African American voters, who make up more than half the Democratic electorate. He went out of his way to speak to them, remarking on issues like the black-white gap in life expectancy in this state.
Sanders, pummeled from every angle, found himself on defense throughout the debate. He stood up for his electability by pointing to the many polls showing that “I beat Trump.” He argued that in order to win the presidency, “what you’re going to need is an unprecedented grassroots movement of black and white and Latino, Native American and Asian people who are standing up and fighting for justice.” He dodged a question about whether he’d move the U.S. embassy back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.
Asked about his past remarks praising Fidel Castro’s literacy program, Sanders said, “I have opposed authoritarianism all over the world,” but argued that the U.S. has overthrown governments in places like Chile and Iran to the detriment of global security. He apologized for his vote in 2005 to give immunity to gun makers from lawsuits if the firearms are used criminally: “I have cast thousands of votes, including bad votes. That was a bad vote.”
Sanders had opportunities to press his message of flipping the table on an economic system that has left many working class Americans dissatisfied. At the end, he said the biggest misconception about him is that “the ideas I’m talking about tonight are radical. They’re not.”
The Minnesota senator sits near the bottom of the pack and faces grim prospects for the nomination as she competes for a limited slice of moderate voters who have many options. She pressed on Tuesday night with her message of pragmatism and spent a significant chunk of time making the case against Sanders. She reminded voters that she was the only Democrat who raised her hand in a previous debate when the candidates were asked if they’re uncomfortable with a democratic-socialist nominee. She said that “the math does not add up” with Sanders’ proposals and that “all those bold progressive things” can be achieved without alienating large numbers of people.
Steyer made the case against a couple of his rivals, but he didn’t make much of a compelling case for himself throughout the evening. He said he worried the race could come down to Sanders and Bloomberg, which means “we’re either going to support somebody who is a democratic socialist or somebody who has a long history of being a Republican.”
“I am scared,” he said.
It’s not clear if the debate will earn him any new votes — or even help him hold on to the support he has built in South Carolina due to heavy spending on TV ads here.