CHARLESTON, S.C. ― Bernie Sanders finally got the front-runner treatment at Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, a combative and messy affair that put his rivals’ urgency on display as polls show the Vermont senator solidifying his support in South Carolina and in other states across the country.
After skating by largely unchallenged in last week’s debate in Las Vegas, Sanders drew repeated attacks over his past votes against gun control, the feasibility and cost of his proposals, what his nomination might mean for down-ballot Democrats running for office in November, reports that Russia might favor his campaign, his comments about Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and his opposition to eliminating the filibuster.
But with Super Tuesday and its many key primaries only a week away, Sanders’ rivals may have waited too long to challenge him onstage and in television ads across the country. And as much as they tried to focus on Sanders, they couldn’t resist getting distracted by squabbling among themselves.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for example, decided to run over former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg one more time, calling him out for supporting Republicans for Senate, including in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and her own state of Massachusetts. And she again excoriated the billionaire self-funder over his alleged treatment of his former female employees.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, went after billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who is threatening Biden’s support from Black voters in South Carolina. Biden whacked Steyer over his hedge fund’s millions of dollars of investments in the nation’s leading private prison corporation.
But it was Sanders who drew most of the attacks on Tuesday, as he noted onstage.
“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight. I wonder why,” the senator quipped at one point.
In a shift, Warren launched her most direct attacks on Sanders yet. The two progressive champions have largely avoided going after each other in the 2020 race, but her path forward after South Carolina’s primary on Saturday is far less secure than that of Sanders.
The Massachusetts senator called out Sanders early on in the debate, saying she would “make a better president than Bernie” because of how she handled questions about “Medicare for All” and its implementation.
“It’s going to take someone to dig into the details to make it happen,” Warren said of her ‘Medicare for All’ plan, voicing frustration at the reaction from Sanders’ campaign. “I dug in, did the work, and Bernie’s team trashed me for it.”
Bloomberg whacked Sanders over reports that Russia is trying to help his campaign. “That’s why Russia is helping you get elected, so you’ll lose to [Donald Trump],” he said. But the senator gave as good as he got, criticizing Bloomberg over his past praise of China’s President Xi Jinping.
“I’m not a good friend of President Xi of China,” Sanders said. “I think President Xi is an authoritarian leader, and let me tell Mr. Putin, who tried to interfere in the 2016 election and tried to pit Americans against each other: Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president, trust me, you won’t interfere with any more elections.”
Biden slammed Sanders for past votes against gun control measures in the 1990s, including the Brady Act, which mandated federal background checks and a waiting period for some handgun purchases. Though Sanders now supports gun control measures, Biden said the 2015 church massacre in Charleston, which took place mere feet away from the debate stage, may have not have happened if stricter gun control measures were in place.
“I’m not saying he’s responsible for the nine deaths,” Biden said of Sanders, “but that man would not be able to get that weapon without a waiting period,” he added, referring to the shooter.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the other moderates in the race, hit Sanders over the cost of his health care and economic proposals.
“The math does not add up,” Klobuchar said of Sanders’ plans.
Buttigieg, meanwhile, argued that nominating a self-described Democratic socialist would hurt Democrats’ chances at flipping the Senate and defending their House majority in November.
“Let’s do some math ... It adds up to four more years of Donald Trump,” Buttigieg warned about a potential Sanders nomination.
He also pressed Sanders on the filibuster and his opposition to rewriting the Senate’s longstanding supermajority rule on legislation. “How are we going to deliver a revolution if you won’t even support a rule change?” Buttigieg asked.
Warren piled on, saying that “people like Bernie” have “given a veto” to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries by refusing to call for an end to the filibuster.
Sanders didn’t give an inch, staying on-message as he has in past debates. He said he would pay for his proposals through a tax on the wealthiest Americans, as well as some tax increases on the middle class he said would be offset by lower health care costs. The biggest misconception about his campaign, he added, is that “the ideas I’m talking about are radical. They’re not.”
The senator also defended his recent comments in which he praised aspects of Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba. “I have opposed authoritarian governments all over the world,” Sanders said Tuesday, arguing that they deserved praise when they do something right.
It’s not clear if Tuesday’s unorganized assault on Sanders will be enough to deny his path to the Democratic nomination, however. With the moderate lane in the race split between several candidates, Sanders is currently projected to take a huge lead in the delegate-rich Super Tuesday states ― a lead that may be irreversible after next week.
Sanders’ campaign summed up the decidedly chaotic debate with an email subject line that will only help his cause with his most ardent supporters: “US against everyone.”
“It’s us against the entire damn political establishment,” the campaign wrote in the fundraising plea. “Tonight it was the candidates taking aim at Bernie on the debate stage. Tomorrow it will be their super PACs and their personal billions taking aim at us in television ads.”