The Democratic Candidates Get Testy — and the Crowd Won't Stop Booing — at Latest Debate

Sean Neumann

There was one — and perhaps only one — thing that the seven candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination could all agree on during Tuesday night’s primary debate in South Carolina: Donald Trump must be defeated in November.

But who is best to defeat him and how and what the country should look like if he were out of office — on those key questions, the seven sharply diverged.

At times their disagreements, otherwise familiar to Democratic voters after many debates this election, played out in factitious fashion. The moderators did not always keep a tight rein on the proceedings.

With another contest only days away, followed by “Super Tuesday” next week, in which more than a dozen states will vote simultaneously, the candidates took the night to make one of their last (and they hoped best) cases to Democratic voters.

Standing alongside one another onstage in Charleston, they were not afraid to use sharp words, throw exasperated looks and make testy interjections. And throughout the debate, they were regularly soundtracked by loud booing by the audience — sometimes of one candidate, sometimes another, giving the proceedings the feeling of a live wrestling match, with the crowd relishing the ability to express its own feelings.

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At the center of the stage was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination after wins in New Hampshire and Nevada and a very narrow second-place loss in Iowa.

He was a major target of his rivals, which he seemed to enjoy as an opportunity to argue for his major reforms, such as universal health care and free public college.

But candidates like Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Vice President Joe Biden pushed back with their own speaking time. They challenged the viability of a democratic socialist, raising the specter of an easy Trump win against Sanders in the general election, with Democrats suffering in down-ballot races leading to Republican control of Congress.

Sanders, in turn, pointed to his strength against Trump in polls so far.

From left: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden at Tuesday's Democratic debate in South Carolina | Win McNamee/Getty Images
Mike Bloomberg (left) and Pete Buttigieg
Tom Steyer | Scott Olson/Getty Images
Sen. Amy Klobuchar | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman and former New York City mayor, was another major target. After a late entry to the race and an unusual campaigning strategy in which he skipped the first four states and spent hundreds of millions on advertising and building out his campaign staff, Bloomberg made his debate debut last week in Nevada. There he was shredded by his fellow candidates in a performance that was widely panned.

In an aside that reflected his social media team’s trolling tendencies, he joked about his debate prowess versus the other candidates on Tuesday, saying, “I did such a good job of beating them last week.”

He was again criticized by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — who elsewhere joined Sanders in contending that their progressive policies are far more popular, and far less radical, than some claim.

Addressing Bloomberg, Warren pressed him on his history of backing Republican candidates (he has switched parties in his own career) and again raised the issue of confidentiality agreements that women have had to sign if they complained about issues with him or his eponymous business company. She went viral with such an attack last week and Bloomberg announced after that he would release certain women from their agreements.

In an early dust-up on Tuesday night, she repeated an allegation that Bloomberg had once told a pregnant woman to “kill it,” which he stridently denied on stage.

Throughout the night, the seven candidates — Biden, Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sanders, billionaire investor Tom Steyer and Warren — sounded off on issues including national security, health care, Israel, North Korea, Russian interference in American politics and the threat of the coronavirus.

In some of the debate’s more confusing moments, candidates talked freely over one another while the CBS moderators tried to instill order on who should answer which question next. (According to The New York Times tally, Sanders spoke the most, followed by Bloomberg and Klobuchar.)

In a comment early in the night, reflecting the underlying existential tension in the party as it prepares to try and defeat Trump, Klobuchar said plainly: “If we spend the next four months tearing our party apart, we’re going to watch Donald Trump spend the next four years tearing our country apart.”

The Race So Far

The South Carolina primary will be held this Saturday, as the race for the Democratic nomination quickly progresses onto “Super Tuesday” next week with Sanders seeking to solidify his lead and Biden looking for a comeback.

On March 3, Democrats will be vying for more than 1,300 of the 1,991 delegates needed to win the nomination in 16 contests across the country. Traditionally, that benchmark is a point where candidates with lacking support and losses in early primaries suspend their campaigns.

Sanders leads his rivals in national polling with about 29 percent, according to RealClearPolitics average.

Biden, who is pushing for a win in South Carolina thanks to his largely black electorate, is polling at around 17 percent behind Sanders, while Bloomberg, Warren and Buttigieg follow behind, respectively. Klobuchar is polling after them with about 5 percent.