Seven Democratic candidates took the debate stage Tuesday in South Carolina to win over voters before the state’s primary on Saturday.
The debate was the 10th in the election cycle and the final major debate before next week’s Super Tuesday races.
Here are the key takeaways:
Sanders takes heat as front-runner
Sen. Bernie Sanders is currently leading in the delegate count following his showings in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. The six other candidates began the debate by questioning his viability in the general election and asserting why he wouldn’t be the best candidate.
“Do you want to have someone in charge of this ticket who wants to put forward 60 trillion dollars in spending? Three times the American economy. I don’t think we do,” said Sen. Amy Klobachar. “I think we can get all those bold, progressive things done without having someone that’s so alienating that we’re going to turn off the voters that we need to bring with us.”
“We are looking at a party that has decided that we’re either going to support someone who is a Democratic socialist or somebody who has a long history of being a Republican,” added Tom Steyer, also attacking former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “And I am scared if we cannot pull this party together, if we go to one of those extremes, we take a terrible risk of re-electing Donald Trump.”
Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg brought up recent reports that found the Russian government is working to help Sanders’ campaign.
“I mean, look, if you think the last four years have been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump,” Buttigieg said. “Think about what that will be like for this country.”
Sanders took his response directly to Vladimir Putin.
“Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me, you’re not going to interfere in any more American elections,” he said.
Sanders also came under attack for his comments made on Sunday’s “60 Minutes” where he complimented dictator Fidel Castro’s educational programs. The senator said he has opposed “authoritarianism all over the world.”
“Of course you have a dictatorship in Cuba,” he said.
Buttigieg expressed concern that Sanders’ views would hurt other Democrats in key elections across the nation.
“We’re not going to win these 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,” he said.
Bloomberg parries attacks
In his second debate appearance, Bloomberg responded to criticism about his past policies both as mayor and business leader.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized Bloomberg’s past support of Republicans, including Sen. Lindsay Graham and her 2012 Senate opponent, Scott Brown.
“I don’t care how much money Mayor Bloomberg has,” she said. “The core of the Democratic party will never trust him. He has not earned their trust.”
But Bloomberg, who is focusing on the Super Tuesday states and isn’t competing in the South Carolina contest, brushed off her concerns by calling them “sideshows,” and touted his record in New York.
“When people hired me to run New York City three times in an overwhelmingly Democratic progressive city, they elected me again and again,” he said.
Warren once again brought up Bloomberg’s past allegations of sexism and harassment, including a claim in the 1990s that he told an employee who announced she was pregnant to “kill it.” Warren recalled her own experience where she was let go from a teaching job at 21 after she was pregnant with her first child.
“At least I didn’t have a boss who said to me, ‘Kill it,’ the way that Mayor Bloomberg … is alleged to have said to one of his pregnant employees,” she said.
Bloomberg interrupted her, denying those claims, and issued another apology to any woman he may have hurt with his comments.
“What happened here is, we went back 40 years and we could only find three cases where women said they were uncomfortable,” he said.
Bloomberg’s use of the controversial stop and frisk police tactic and his recent apologies came up again in the debate as moderator Gayle King asked him how he would counter people’s skepticism about his reversal. The mayor touted his support from 100 black elected New York City officials, as well as the city’s drop in crime and its overall increase in quality of life.
“We’ve done the things that people need in New York City, for all ethnicities,” he said.
A forceful Biden emerges
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has underperformed in the caucuses and primary, is banking on a win in South Carolina to regain his momentum. The former vice president said he is working to gain the black vote, despite polls showing gains from Sanders, and cited his years of working with the African American community.
“The people know me,” he said. “My entire career has been wrapped up in dealing with civil rights and civil liberties. I don’t expect anything. I plan to earn the vote.”
Biden brought up his work in passing gun control legislation, noting that he helped pass the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban in the 1990s.
“I’m the only one that ever got it done nationally,” he said when asked about efforts to curb gun violence.
You can read the rest of Ivan Pereira and Marc Nathanson’s article at ABCnews.com