WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Sen. Bernie Sanders faced some of the toughest questions he has been asked in ten primary debates Tuesday night as he clashed with his fellow Democratic presidential candidates for the last time before pivotal primaries that could set him on an unstoppable path to the party’s nomination.
The Vermont senator leads the Democratic field in the delegate count and the popular vote after the first three contests, and he is angling to upset former Vice President Joe Biden in Saturday’s South Carolina primary. Another win would strengthen Sanders’ hand heading into Super Tuesday next week—where about one-third of total delegates are up for grabs in more than a dozen states—while Biden’s candidacy could be crippled by an unexpected loss in a state he had long considered his firewall.
Tuesday’s debate in Charleston, South Carolina, co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, is moderated by CBS anchors Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell, with additional questions from Margaret Brennan, Major Garrett, and Bill Whitaker.
The debate opened with a question about why voters should support democratic socialist Sanders over President Donald Trump when the economy is strong, but it quickly digressed into a broader discussion of Sanders' candidacy that would carry on for the better part of two hours.
“The economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg and other billionaires... For the ordinary American, things are not so good,” Sanders said, referring to former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, whose net worth is more than $60 billion.
“We’re going to create an economy for all, not just wealthy campaign contributors,” he added.
Bloomberg responded by citing reports that Sanders has been briefed on Russian efforts to interfere in the election to help him get the Democratic nomination. Sanders immediately pushed back, referencing Bloomberg’s past comments praising Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me, you’re not going to interfere in any more elections,” Sanders said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Mass., defended Sanders’ economic policies, but she maintained she would be a better president than him.
“Progressive ideas are popular ideas,” Warren said, adding that getting that agenda enacted would still be difficult and she believes she is more capable of getting it done.
Other candidates also took shots at Sanders over Medicare for All, his record on gun control, and his past clashes with the Democratic establishment.
“He said we should primary Barack Obama,” Biden said.
“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight,” Sanders joked. “I wonder why.”
Even though he has not yet appeared on a ballot, Bloomberg again faced numerous attacks on his record. Warren slammed him for donating to South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and other Republicans, including the one she defeated in Massachusetts in 2012.
“I don’t care how much money Mayor Bloomberg has. The core of the Democratic Party will never trust him,” she said, calling him “the riskiest candidate standing on this stage.”
Bloomberg pushed back by pointing to his experience as mayor and his vast resources.
“I’m the one choice that makes some sense,” he said.
Bloomberg defended himself on the stop-and-frisk policing policies that expanded on his watch, which several other candidates described as racist. He also rejected criticism for alleged sexist comments in the workplace, complaining that he has already addressed the issue and does not want to keep relitigating it.
“If you get nominated, we’re going to be relitigating this all year,” South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg also questioned whether Sanders is a safe bet for Democrats at the top of the ticket, telling the senator moderate incumbents who helped flip the House are "running away from your platform as fast as they possibly can."
Biden and billionaire Tom Steyer clashed over Steyer's past funding of private prisons, with Biden calling him a "Johnny come lately" for later opposing such facilities. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minn., interjected that Democrats should stop attacking each other, though she also questioned Sanders' electability.
"If we spend the next four months tearing our party apart, we're going to spend the next four years watching Donald Trump tear the country apart," she said.
Sanders released a document outlining the costs of his major proposals and how he intends to pay for them. Asked to explain exactly how he would pay for Medicare for All, he brushed the question aside.
“How many hours do you have?” he asked, insisting he has presented funding options that would cover all the costs.
Others argued his math does not add up and warned his plan to eliminate private health insurance would be unpopular with Americans. Buttigieg claimed nominating Sanders would place Democrats' majority in the House in jeopardy and wipe out any chance of taking control of the Senate.
"The time has come for us to stop acting like the presidency is the only office that matters," he said.
In a city that was traumatized by gun violence when a racist opened fire at Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2015, candidates made their pitch that they can succeed where Democrats in Washington have failed for years and advance gun control proposals.
“I’m the only one who ever got it done nationally,” Biden said, slipping in criticism of Sanders for his past votes siding with the National Rifle Association.
Sanders acknowledged bad votes on guns on his record, but he stressed he now has a D rating from the NRA and promised his rating would be even worse if elected president.
Warren insisted it does not matter who Democrats elect as long as Senate Republicans can block any gun legislation that cannot get 60 votes. She supports eliminating the legislative filibuster but Sanders wants to preserve it.
“The filibuster is giving a veto to the gun industry,” she said.
With the COVID-19 virus spreading around the world causing 2,700 deaths globally, Democrats blamed President Trump for cutting resources and staffing at the agencies designated to deal with this sort of pandemic.
“There’s nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing,” Bloomberg said.
Though Trump has downplayed the risk of the virus as fear drives down the stock market, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday the coronavirus will eventually spread more widely in the United States.
"This is so serious," Klobuchar said, urging Americans to check the CDC website for information on the outbreak.
Biden cited the Obama administration's handling of the Ebola outbreak in 2012, suggesting similar steps should be taken now with a coordinated and well-funded response.
"We did it. We stopped it," he said.
Sanders derided Trump, mocking him as a "great scientist" for predicting the virus will be wiped out when spring arrives.
"This is a global problem. We need to work with countries all over the world to stop it," he said.
Bloomberg criticized China’s human rights record, but he stressed the need to work with China and refused to describe Xi Jinping as a dictator. Others were not so reluctant.
“This is a guy who doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body. This is a guy who is a thug,” Biden said.
Sanders faced questions about his history of defending socialist regimes, including praising Cuba’s literacy program earlier this week. He noted President Obama once said something similar, but he insisted he would push back against dictatorships as president.
“I have opposed authoritarianism all over the world,” he said, mentioning President Trump’s exchange of “love letters” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Buttigieg again warned Democratic candidates further down the ballot are not going to want to spend the fall defending their nominee speaking favorably about Castro.
"This is not about what coups were happening in the 1960s and 70s. This is about the future," he said.
Sanders dismissed such concerns, pointing to his favorability in national polls and claiming he alone can inspire a wave of new voters to unseat Trump.
"We need to have the largest voter turnout in the history of the United States," he said.
At the last debate in Nevada, Democratic candidates trained most of their fire on relative newcomer former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has spent a half-billion dollars on advertising and organization hoping to convince moderate voters in Super Tuesday states and beyond that he is best suited to take on President Donald Trump in November.
For moderate Democrats terrified of nominating a self-declared democratic socialist, Sanders’ decisive victory in Nevada’s caucuses Saturday underscored the urgency of chipping away at his veneer of inevitability before he amasses a delegate count that truly is insurmountable. However, the moderate vote continues to be split between Biden, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, making it difficult for anyone to build momentum to challenge Sanders.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who impressed many Democrats last week by savagely tearing into Bloomberg’s record onstage, has rarely been explicitly critical of Sanders, but she is running out of opportunities to sway progressive voters away from him. Bloomberg was expected to come under attack again Tuesday, but he was also looking to aggressively press his case that placing Sanders at the top of the ticket would be a disaster for Democrats.
While Bloomberg is not on the ballot in South Carolina, another largely self-funded billionaire is. Tom Steyer has barely registered with voters in most states, but massive spending in South Carolina has vaulted him into third place in recent polls there. Steyer was back on the stage Tuesday after failing to qualify for the previous debate.
As Biden struggled through underwhelming performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, his campaign looked ahead to South Carolina, where unmatched support from black voters gave him a sizable lead in polls for months. Sanders’ early state wins and Steyer’s ad blitz have eaten into that support somewhat, but Biden remained firmly in first place in several polls conducted last week.
An NBC News/Marist poll released Monday signaled the race is tightening, though. Biden’s lead over Sanders was down to four points, 27% to 23%, with Steyer at 15% and the rest of the field in single digits. Biden is now averaging a five-point lead in the state, according to RealClearPolitics, but all current polls were conducted before Sanders drew nearly half the vote in Nevada Saturday.
As the frontrunner in the nomination fight, Sanders will likely face questions from moderators and fellow candidates Tuesday about his policies and his past, which have been subject to extensive media discussion in recent days. He has continued to defend decades-old comments praising Cuba’s literacy programs under Fidel Castro despite blowback from Florida Democrats, and he has an extensive record of controversial comments about other socialist regimes.
Amid growing criticism for his inability to pin down the exact cost of his ambitious plans to drastically expand government services, eliminate college debt, and provide health care to all Americans, Sanders’ campaign released a breakdown Monday night showing how he would come up with $40 trillion in new government revenue to pay for it all. Critics have questioned some of the math, and moderates may balk at the steep tax increases it would require.
Although Medicare for All and other progressive programs are popular with Democratic primary voters, Sanders’ opponents maintain they would be a much harder sell in the general election, where Republicans would portray him as a communist and attempt to tie vulnerable incumbents to his agenda. Internal Bloomberg campaign polling provided to Politico suggested a plurality of voters in battleground districts would be less likely to vote for a Democrat for Congress if Sanders is the nominee.
Sanders has brushed off doubts about his electability in the past, insisting he can motivate a broad coalition that includes a large number of first-time voters, but those new voters have not materialized in the first three states to vote this month. With Republicans already featuring him prominently in attack ads in House and Senate races, he may need to provide a more convincing answer to calm fears of an electoral disaster in November.
None of that may matter if the anti-Sanders vote does not consolidate in the weeks ahead. Buttigieg is currently in second place in the delegate count, but he has limited prospects for success in the remaining states. Biden is third, but Bloomberg has sapped some of his support from centrist voters in states beyond South Carolina.
Warren and Klobuchar have also netted some delegates so far, but they would need a big change in the dynamics of the race to boost them into contention. A debate stage with millions of voters watching may be the best place to make that kind of change happen, and both have seen surges in donations and support after strong showings in past debates.
For most candidates trying to take down Sanders, this could be their last debate unless they can impress enough voters to score a significant share of delegates on Super Tuesday and justify staying in the race. The next debate is in Phoenix on March 15 after several more states cast their votes, and many campaigns are already strapped for cash.