Sanders faces attacks in Democrats' debate-stage clash
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Bernie Sanders faced a torrent of attacks Tuesday night during a raucous debate that tested the Democratic front-runner's strength in what could be several candidates' final prime-time opportunity to change the direction of the 2020 nomination fight.
Mike Bloomberg seized on reports that Russia was interfering in the 2020 presidential election to help Sanders. Joe Biden attacked Sanders for considering launching a primary challenge against former President Barack Obama. And Even Sanders' ideological ally, Elizabeth Warren, said she’d be a better president than the Vermont senator.
They all predicted that Sanders would lose to President Donald Trump this fall.
Sanders, who has risen to be the Democrats' clear front-runner, responded: “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 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 the polarizing progressive. Even some critics, Bloomberg among them, conceded that the Vermont senator could build an insurmountable delegate lead as soon next Tuesday, when 14 states host a series of primary contests known as “Super Tuesday.”
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.
Bloomberg was the focus last week for his highly anticipated debut, but after a bad performance that froze his momentum, the knives were out for the 78-year-old Vermont senator.
The night marked a bitter-sweet high point of sorts for Sanders' decades-long political career.
After spending nearly three decades as an outside agitator who delighted in tearing into his party’s establishment, that same establishment was suddenly fighting to take him down.
Bloomberg made the case that both Trump and Russia President Vladimir Putin are in lockstep in their belief that Sanders would make the weakest Democratic general election rival for the incumbent Trump. Last week, Sanders acknowledged that he’d be been briefed by intelligence officials who said that Russia is attempting to interfere in the elections to benefit him.
“Vladimir Trump thinks Donald Trump should be president of the United States and that’s why Russia is helping you get elected so you lose to him,” Bloomberg said.
Sanders shot back, "Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me you’re not going to interfere in any more American elections.’”
Biden was also 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.
Also a factor: Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who has borrowed heavily from his personal fortune to fuel a strong push in South Carolina, where he's threatening to peel away some of Biden's support with state's black voters. Rivals Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are also fighting to win over moderates while decrying Sanders' chief policy priorities.
Warren had resisted attacking Sanders, her ideological ally, for much of the last year. On Tuesday night, the Massachusetts senator trained her focus on both Sanders and Bloomberg, whom she savaged last week on the debate stage and on the campaign trail leading up to Tuesday's meeting.
In her most direct shot at Sanders, Warren made the case she’s simply the better candidate.
“Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better president than Bernie,” Warren said. “And the reason for that is that getting a progressive agenda is going to be really hard, and it's going to take someone digs into the details to make it happen.”
Yet Warren saved her fiercest attacks for Bloomberg.
She cut hard at Bloomberg’s record as a businessman, bringing up reports of one particular allegation that he told a pregnant employee “to kill it,” a reference to the woman’s unborn child. Bloomberg fiercely denied the allegation, but acknowledged he sometimes made comments that were inappropriate.
Bloomberg “cannot earn the trust of the core of the Democratic Party,” Warren said. “He is the riskiest candidate standing on this stage.”
Sanders' handling of the pressure could be crucial in determining whether he stays at the top of the Democratic pack.