The South Carolina primary has traditionally been one of the last early states to vote before the onslaught of Super Tuesday, so it’s been home to many last-ditch political pitches and tricks.
It was fitting then that the final debate before the South Carolina primary (and Super Tuesday) featured a number of aggressive lines and tactics in a very unsettled Democratic primary.
Some candidates were at their most aggressive as they tried to muscle precious TV time away from their competitors, talking loud enough and long enough to win the floor in the poorly run CBS debate. The main day-after water-cooler conversation about the debate is likely to be how much of a disaster the two-hour event was more than about any candidate in particular.
Still, not all candidates performed equally.
The grades below are based on how each candidate did, including the substance and resonance of their responses, as well as whether they accomplished what they needed in the context of their campaigns. Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, needed to repeat her breakout performance from last week’s debate in order to stay in the conversation. Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg just needed to not screw up in order for them to be big-time players on Super Tuesday.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont
Did Sanders have some commanding performance that could suggest to nervous Democrats, worried about a democratic socialist, that he will be a solid nominee? No. No, he did not.
This was not his best debate performance. He appeared rattled when the audience booed him a few times.
But at the end of the debate, Sanders was still the frontrunner with a wide and undefined field behind him. With many early votes in California and other Super Tuesday states already cast, the Vermont Senator had a performance that rallied his base, which is what he needed to do.
Former mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
If the polls all year are right, then Buttigieg has very little going on in South Carolina, and won’t do well on Saturday. But Tuesday’s debate was also the final big forum before Super Tuesday and looking to March 3, Buttigieg did himself some good.
Without any arrows being shot his way (not even from Klobuchar, who has frequently targeted him) the former mayor was given space to pull off some good zingers and create moments that he can use for Facebook and Instagram ads for the next week.
A lot of what happens to Buttigieg next is not in his hands. If people believe that Bloomberg is not a good candidate after two rocky debates and are looking for a moderate, they might choose Biden if Biden wins South Carolina. But if Biden doesn’t win South Carolina, then suddenly Buttigieg will be the person that moderates can return to. His performance Tuesday night did no harm — and might have done some good — in positioning him as a moderate alternative to Sanders.
Former vice president Joe Biden
Yes, Biden was more assertive in this debate. Yes, he was actually just angry at times. He entered this debate as the South Carolina frontrunner and he still might win on Saturday. So he didn’t do any harm. But he also didn’t present himself as the obvious alternative to Sanders. That’s a problem.
On Saturday, Biden will either drop out or, if he wins, continue on. But either way, it is unclear if he can beat Buttigieg in a lot of places on Super Tuesday, much less Bloomberg. And he has no other high-profile moments to turn things around.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
Warren landed punches, was entertaining, and gave supporters a lot of reasons root for her, particularly in her exchanges with Bloomberg. There is no doubt she is the one who will be getting the most news coverage following the debate.
Even with the good performance, in the context of her campaign, Warren’s path to becoming the nominee remains very unclear and it didn’t get any clearer after the debate. She is certainly not to be counted out, but right now, there is no state where you can obviously count her in to win — including Massachusetts.
Former mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City
It wasn’t his D performance from last time. It wasn’t a ton better either. If voters only tuned into the first hour, they would have watched him have a very rough performance trying to parry attacks from Warren. He needed to prove that the poor debate performances were a thing of the past. He didn’t.
Businessman Tom Steyer of California
It appeared Steyer entered the debate with the right game plan. He was very assertive from the first question because he had to assume that he would be largely ignored in this debate. But on performance, Steyer got smacked by Biden and he never landed any punches himself.
And in the context of the campaign, here’s the cold hard truth: Steyer needs to win South Carolina or come super close or there is really no point in continuing his White House bid. Nothing he did in the debate really helped. On Saturday, he’ll probably finish outside the top two, and then drop out.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
Grade: 🌠 Participation badge
In the last debate, this scorecard declared her campaign over, even if she hasn’t dropped out. On Tuesday, she didn’t do anything in the debate to make her campaign come back from the dead.