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Democratic presidential candidates target Sanders at South Carolina debate

Mike Bloomberg seized on reports that Russia is interfering in the 2020 presidential election to help Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders as the party's candidates met on the debate stage for what could be their final prime-time opportunity to change the direction of the nomination fight.

Biden, Buttigieg make forceful points against front-runner; Warren calls out Bloomberg

Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders was the target during a debate in South Carolina, the last one before Super Tuesday. 2:51

Democrats unleashed a roaring assault against Bernie Sanders' electability and seized on Mike Bloomberg's past with women in the workplace in a raucous debate Tuesday night that tested the strength of the two men leading their party's presidential nomination fight.

Sanders, his status as the Democratic front-runner undeniable, faced the brunt of the attacks for much of Tuesday night in Charleston, S.C.

Former vice-president Joe Biden went after Sanders for what he characterized as softness toward gun-makers, saying Sanders's position "has caused carnage on our streets." Meanwhile, Pete Buttigieg — mired among the moderates fighting to emerge as the chief Sanders' alternative — seized on Sanders' self-described democratic socialism and his comments expressing admiration for Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's push for education.

"I am not looking forward to a scenario where it comes down to Donald Trump with his nostalgia for the social order of the 1950s and Bernie Sanders with a nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s," Buttigieg declared.

Sanders lashed back throughout the night, pointing to polls that showed him beating the Republican president and noting all the recent attention he's gotten: "I'm hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight. I wonder why?"

The new wave of infighting came as Democrats met for the party's 10th — and perhaps most consequential — debate of the 2020 primary season. Tuesday's forum, sponsored by CBS and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, came just four days before South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary and one week before more than a dozen states vote on Super Tuesday.

The intensity of Tuesday's clash, with candidates repeatedly yelling over each other, reflected the reality that the Democrats' establishment wing is quickly running out of time to stop Sanders' rise. Even some critics, Bloomberg among them, conceded that Sanders could build an insurmountable delegate lead as soon as next week.

The Democrats' 2020 class will not stand side by side on the debate stage until the middle of next month, making Tuesday's debate the best, and perhaps last, chance for some candidates to save themselves and alter the trajectory of the high-stakes nomination fight.

WATCH | Bloomberg delivers opening salvo against Sanders:

the former New York City mayor delivered the opening salvo against the Democratic presidential front-runner during a debate in South Carolina. 0:50

Targeting the front-runner

Bloomberg also seized on reports that Russia was interfering in the election to help Sanders. 

"Russia is helping you get elected so you lose," to U.S. President Donald Trump, Bloomberg said. 

Sanders responded: "Hey Mr. Putin, if I'm president of the United States, trust me you're not going to interfere in any more American elections."

Sanders was also criticized for his support, in 2005, of a proposal backed by the National Rifle Association granting gun manufacturers broad legal protections. 

Sanders responded he has "cast thousands of votes, including bad votes. That was a bad vote." Buttigieg took Sanders to task, saying his position on guns wasn't an old one but "is a current bad position that Bernie Sanders holds."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar also fought to win over moderates while decrying Sanders' chief policy priorities.

WATCH | Buttigieg criticizes Sanders for 'current bad position':

'How are we going to lead a revolution if you can't support a rules change?' Buttigieg challenged Sanders. 1:14

Warren 'dug in'

Sen. Elizabeth Warren also went straight at Sanders, a fellow progressive, saying she would be a better president than him because she'll be able to get more progressive policies passed. The Massachusetts senator said she's "dug in" when it comes to fighting big banks and actually explaining how she'd enact universal health care.

Warren said: "Progressives have got one shot, and we need to spend it with a leader who is going to get something done."

Though while the knives were out for Sanders, Bloomberg also faced sustained attacks that gave him an opportunity to redeem himself after a bad debate debut one week earlier.

Warren slammed Bloomberg over a news report that he told a female employee to "kill it" when she became pregnant.

Bloomberg denied making the remark. "Never said it, period. End of story," he said.

Invoking her own story of discrimination on the job after she became pregnant, Warren escalated her push to get Bloomberg to release all former employees from nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) they signed while working at his media company.

WATCH | Warren criticizes Bloomberg over 'kill it' allegation:

Invoking her own story of discrimination on the job after she became pregnant, the Massachusetts senator slammed the former New York City mayor over allegations against him. 1:01

Bloomberg apologized for other off-colour remarks he is reported to have made to female employees, but has declined to address Warren's call to release more than the three women he previously released from their NDAs.

Bloomberg was steadier on his feet Tuesday, although it was unclear whether the performance would be enough to revive his stalled  campaign.

His fortune ensures he will remain a factor at least through Super Tuesday. Bloomberg has already spent more than $500 million US on a countrywide advertising campaign.

Biden's make-or-break primary?

Biden was looking to make a big impression in South Carolina, where he was long viewed as the unquestioned front-runner because of his support from black voters.

South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary offers the first real look at the outsized influence African American voters play in the Democrats' presidential nomination process.

Biden has long looked to South Carolina — and black voters in particular — as a source of strength.

WATCH | Biden confident he'll win South Carolina primary:

The former U.S. vice-president says he ‘worked like the devil’ to earn the African American vote in the state. 0:59

But heading into Saturday's primary after three consecutive underwhelming finishes, there were signs that the former vice-president's African American support may be slipping.

One reason: Tom Steyer. The billionaire activist has been pouring money into African American outreach, which threatens to peel away some of the support Biden badly needs.

Steyer noted Tuesday that he was the only candidate on stage who supported reparations for descendants of slaves.

Bloomberg also weighed in on race: "I know that if I were black my success would have been a lot harder to achieve," he said. "That's a fact that we've got to do something about."

Heading into Saturday's primary in South Carolina, Sanders has earned an estimated 45 delegates, according to 270ToWin, a non-partisan U.S. political website. Buttigieg sits in second with 26, followed by Biden, Warren and Klobuchar.

Bloomberg was not on the ticket for the first three nomination contests, as well as the upcoming primary in South Carolina, as he chose to focus his efforts on the 15 primaries and caucuses taking place on March 3 — popularly known as Super Tuesday.

During the primaries and caucuses, candidates compete for 3,979 pledged delegates who will vote for them at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee on July 13-16. If a candidate secures a majority of 1,990 pledged delegates or higher, he or she will have the necessary support to secure the Democratic nomination on the first ballot in Milwaukee.

 

With files from CBC News

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