Senator Bernie Sanders finally got the front-runner treatment on Tuesday night, facing an onslaught of direct attacks from his rivals on his gun record, foreign policy views, and effectiveness as they tried to slow his march to the nomination.
As the candidates gathered in Charleston, S.C., for the Democrats’ 10th debate, their newly aggressive focus on Sanders reflected the growing threat he poses to the rest of the field after winning two of the first three early states and leading most national polls heading into South Carolina’s primary on Saturday and the Super Tuesday sweepstakes of 14 primaries next week.
More than anything, most of his rivals painted the 78-year-old democratic socialist as a risky nominee who is too radical to defeat President Trump. But they also accused him of being too far to the right on some key issues, including gun control. The result was an at-times bruising two hours for Sanders, who was spared intense scrutiny in last week’s debate when many candidates trained their sights on former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg instead.
Sanders grew visibly agitated defending himself, and even faced boos from the crowd at times.
But it was as unclear as ever at the end of the night which candidate could coalesce enough support to take on Sanders in a split field, as the stage at times descended into cacophony with each of his rivals jostling to land a blow on the front-runner.
“Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States,” Bloomberg told Sanders early in the debate. “And that's why Russia is helping you get elected, so you will lose to him.”
Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg asked the crowd to “imagine” the chaos and divisiveness of a Trump vs. Sanders race in 2020 and said Sanders would hurt down-ballot Democrats.
It was not apparent whether any single blow was as damaging to Sanders as the onslaught Bloomberg faced at last week’s debate — or whether it was too late to blunt the Vermont senator’s momentum regardless.
Sanders repeatedly stressed his own electability, rattling off the head-to-head polling that shows him defeating Trump and his own ability to rally a “grass-roots movement” fueled by his proposals for tuition-free college, Medicare for All, and a $15 minimum wage.
“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little tonight,” Sanders said at one point, suggesting that his rivals were only after him due to his recent victories. “I wonder why.”
But Sanders occasionally seemed unprepared, awkwardly responding to a moderator’s request that he “do the math” on his signature policy proposal, Medicare for All.
“How many hours do you have?” Sanders asked.
Buttigieg jumped into the ensuing melee to land a blow on the senator.
“I’ll tell you exactly what it adds up to,” Buttigieg said. “It adds up to four more years of Donald Trump.” Buttigieg added that many Democratic members of Congress are “running away” from Sanders’ platform. Sanders countered that his proposal would actually save more money long-term than Buttigieg’s by tackling medical expenses.
Former vice president Joe Biden, who is still narrowly leading South Carolina polls, repeatedly slammed Sanders’ record on guns, tying his vote against a 1993 background check bill and other gun positions to “carnage” and millions of gun violence deaths after also linking them to the 2015 white supremacist church shooting in Charleston.
“I’m not saying he’s responsible for the nine deaths,” Biden conceded. “But that man would not have been able to get that weapon with the waiting period I suggested.”
Sanders deflected the accusation, drawing the ire of the crowd.
“You know, Joe has voted for terrible trade agreements,” Sanders said in his defense, as the crowd booed him. “Joe voted for the war in Iraq. I have cast thousands of votes including bad votes. That was a bad vote.”
Sanders faced difficult questions from the moderators as well as his rivals on the issue of his electability. At one point, he was asked to defend his comments praising the Chinese Communist Party and his expressions of “sympathy for socialist governments in Cuba and Nicaragua.”
“Authoritarianism of any stripe is bad,” Sanders said, growing agitated, “but that is different than saying that governments occasionally do things that are good.”
Buttigieg jumped in to suggest that the very question makes Sanders too dangerous a nominee for the Democrats.
“We’re certainly not going to win these critical, critical House and Senate races if people in those races have to explain why the nominee of the Democratic Party is telling people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime,” Buttigieg said.
Biden shot down Sanders’ defense that Barack Obama had also praised some aspects of Fidel Castro’s rule, saying the former president “did not in any way suggest there was anything good about the Cuban government.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren jumped into the onslaught against Sanders in the opening minutes of the debate and took the rare step of criticizing him directly — not for being too far left, but for being too ineffectual to enact his sweeping agenda. .
“Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better president than Bernie,” Warren said, casting herself as a more capable and detail-oriented alternative and saying it was she, not he, who managed to rein in the banks after the 2008 financial crash.
She also attacked his marquee Medical for All plan as being too vague. “I dug in, I did the work, and then Bernie’s team trashed me for it,” Warren said of her own Medicare for All proposal.
At times, she and Buttigieg — who have been at odds in previous debates — seemed to work together to paint Sanders as ineffective. After Warren said progressives could not enact their agenda without rolling back the filibuster, a Senate rule that means 60 votes are usually needed to advance legislation, Buttigieg distilled the matter to a single question.
“How are you going to deliver a revolution if you won’t even support a rule change?” Buttigieg asked, playing off of Sanders’ “political revolution” catchphrase.
At the end of the debate, Sanders said one of the biggest misconceptions about him is that he’s “radical,” saying his ideas are common sense, not left-wing. “Everything is impossible until it happens,” he said, quoting Nelson Mandela.
But Sanders wasn’t the only candidate to absorb blows on Tuesday. Revealing his precarious standing in his firewall of South Carolina, Biden took the time to attack Tom Steyer, the billionaire who is an afterthought in national polls but rising in polls in that state after spending heavily there, for investing in private prisons.
Biden also spent some of his speaking time deriding the moderators for not letting him speak enough.
“I know how you cut me off all the time, but I’m not going to be quiet anymore, OK?” Biden said during an exchange about housing policy, before he went silent.
Bloomberg, who was the lightning rod of the last debate, was spared another licking by the focus on Sanders — but still absorbed bracing blows from Warren this time around.
Warren told a familiar story of losing a teaching job because she was pregnant — and concluded it by leveling a serious charge at Bloomberg.
“At least I didn’t have a boss who said to me, ‘Kill it,’ the way that Bloomberg is alleged to have said to one of his pregnant employees,” Warren said, referencing an accusation from one of Bloomberg’s former workers.
Bloomberg immediately objected, denying the charge and seeking to dismiss Warren’s criticisms as “sideshows.” Warren pressed him to release more women in his business from nondisclosure agreements — beyond the three he already did after she eviscerated him on the stage last week — but he demurred.
“The trouble is for this senator, enough is never enough,” he said.