(Bloomberg) -- Democrats running for president ripped into two of their own in the last debate before Super Tuesday, saying that nominating either front-runner Bernie Sanders or the best-funded candidate Michael Bloomberg would all but guarantee Donald Trump’s re-election.It’s a grim prescription for a party that still can’t believe it lost to Trump last time, but one that seemed all too real to the Democrats on stage.
Yet none of the other five contenders in Charleston, South Carolina, had the kind of breakout moment that suggested they were prepared to grab the nomination, or emerge from the pack to dislodge Sanders as the front-runner.
The debate showed the extent to which the campaign is becoming a two-person race heading into Super Tuesday March 3, with Sanders showing signs of pulling away from the pack and Bloomberg becoming the latest moderate to try to stop him, after three others before him failed.
Joe Biden is likely to get a boost from an expected win in South Carolina on Saturday, but has dropped in the polls as other candidates have come to match his advantage in name recognition, organization and fund-raising. Elizabeth Warren went on the offensive for a second debate but has struggled to turn those strong performances into primary wins. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar both lack the funding to compete effectively in the sprawling 14-state Super Tuesday contest.
But the debate also drew attention to the difficult path both Bloomberg and Sanders would have if they became the nominee against Trump -- including with the very groups that make up the core of the Democratic Party, women and minority voters.
Sanders faced questions about his past support for revolutionary leaders around the world, the cost of his health-care overhaul and his ability to get anything done as president. Bloomberg received scrutiny about lawsuits by women at his company and his past support for stop-and-frisk policing practices that targeted minority men, which he admitted got “out of control.”
It fell to long-shot candidate Tom Steyer to crystallize the stakes of the night and the choice between Sanders and Bloomberg: “This conversation shows a huge risk for the Democratic Party. 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.”
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The results of the debate weren’t lost on Trump, who arrived back in the U.S. Wednesday morning from his trip to India. Asked by reporters if he watched the debate, Trump said, “I did. Not too good. Not too good.”
Sanders drew the most fire from his rivals, as befitting his status as frontrunner. Warren accused the Vermont senator of stealing details of her health-care plan. Bloomberg said Russia’s intelligence services favor Sanders because Vladimir Putin wants Trump to be re-elected. Biden criticized Sanders’ past stances on gun control.
Sanders pushed back on Bloomberg’s accusation. “Let me tell Mr. Putin, I’m not a good friend of President Xi of China,” Sanders retorted in a reference to comments Bloomberg has made about the Chinese leader. “Hey Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, you’re not going to interfere in” U.S. elections, he said.
Sanders also defended his past comments praising Cuba’s Fidel Castro and said Americans should be honest that U.S. foreign policy isn’t always perfect. That drew a sharp response from Buttigieg, who accused Sanders of having “a nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s” -- something few Americans would support, Buttigieg said.
Bloomberg has offered himself as a practical, more moderate and extremely well-funded alterative to Sanders, with nearly unlimited funds to take on Trump. Yet in the face of continued attacks from Warren, Bloomberg once again struggled to make his case. Warren hammered him for the second time over how he treated legal agreements with people who sued his company over sexual harrassment and job discrimination, known as non-disclosure agreements.
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Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News. He said he offered to lift the agreements in three cases and has ended the practice of using them at his company. Warren said that wasn’t enough and that he should remove them all, leading Bloomberg to say in exasperation, “The trouble is with this senator, enough is never enough.”
As the debate ended, Warren’s campaign was selling “Enough is Never Enough” T-shirts on its website and had sent out a fundraising appeal based on Bloomberg’s comment.
Warren also made her questions to Bloomberg personal to her own story, saying she had been dismissed from an early teaching job because she was pregnant. She referred to one of the NDAs concerning a woman who filed a complaint in 1995 alleging that Bloomberg told her to “kill it” when she told him she was pregnant.
Bloomberg replied, “I never said it. Period. End of story. Categorically never said it.”
Bloomberg was under the most pressure to rehabilitate himself after a widely criticized first debate last week. His solution was a mix of sharp counterattacks and awkward humor.
“I’m surprised they showed up,” he said of his opponents. “I would have thought after I did such a good job in beating them last week, that they would be a little bit afraid to do that.”
The former three-term New York mayor found his footing as the debate went on. He argued that his time leading a progressive Democratic city prepared him to lead the party and the nation. “It’s a lot better city today for everybody,” he said of New York.Much of the debate centered on electability, that elusive characteristic that Democrats say they are focused on in hopes of denying Trump a second term. Democrats attacked Sanders as being too extreme as a democratic socialist to win the votes of mainstream Democrats and hit him repeatedly over the cost of his Medicare-for-All plan for health care, which would top $32 trillion over 10 years.As for Bloomberg, a former Republican, Warren said, “I don’t care how much money Mayor Bloomberg has. The core of the Democratic party will never trust him. He has not earned their trust,” Warren said.The stakes of the debate seemed to fuel an intensity rarely seen in earlier contests, as it frequently devolved into the candidates shouting over each other -- all while decrying that the shouting could turn off voters looking to give Democrats a chance in 2020.
Even Biden, who positioned himself as the adult in the room in nine previous debates, joined in the free-for-all.
“I guess the only way to do this is jump in and speak twice as long as you should,” Biden said before attacking Steyer for his former ownership of a private prison company with a record of poor treatment of inmates.
It’s likely all of the candidates on stage will stay in the race though Super Tuesday -- but also likely only a handful of them will come out the other side. The next debate isn’t until March 15, when almost half the delegates needed for the nomination will have already been awarded.
That means Tuesday might have been the last chance for some of them to make their case, perhaps including Klobuchar and Buttigieg. Warren is still raising money well, but her prospects are equally difficult. Once the presumptive front-runner, Biden has just 15 of the 100 delegates awarded so far, after finishing fourth, fifth and second in the first three contests.
Sanders leads in the delegate count, and demonstrated in Nevada that he can pull together a broader coalition than his mostly young, mostly white, liberal base. He won over Hispanics, African-Americans and union members.
Sanders now trails Biden in South Carolina by 5.1 percentage points. Two weeks ago, it was 14 points.
But that surge has also put a target on Sanders’ back, as the remaining candidates try to stop his momentum.
The debate took place close to the site of a 2015 shooting at a Charleston church, where a white supremacist opened fire on black worshippers, klling nine.
Biden noted the tragedy and used it to criticize Sanders for his votes against the Brady Bill, which regulates handgun ownership, and to allow gun manufacturers immunity from liability in court. Sanders responded by pointing out he has a D-minus voting record from the National Rifle Association.
Bloomberg took the opportunity to point out his gun-control advocacy work, pushing Congress to enact background checks.
South Carolina is the last of the four preliminary heats, making it an important springboard into Super Tuesday.
The state has 54 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention — more than any state so far. Its Democratic electorate is mostly African-American. And it’s the last signal of candidates’ strengths going into Super Tuesday three days later.
And it has a better track record of predicting nominees than any other early state. Since 1988, when Democrats in South Carolina replaced their caucus with a primary, the winner has been the eventual nominee every time except once — in 2004, when North Carolinian John Edwards defeated John Kerry.
Saturday’s primary the first contest in which a billionaire is likely to have a direct impact.
Steyer, a hedge fund manager and climate activist, is polling right at the 15% cutoff to win delegates in South Carolina. He has has spent $23.6 million in advertising in South Carolina, almost twice as much as all other candidates and Super PACs combined, according to the research firm Advertising Analytics.
South Carolina is also the first place where Buttigieg is in danger of being boxed out of delegates. He came in first in Iowa, tied with Sanders in New Hampshire, and fell to third in Nevada. He’s polling at under 10% in South Carolina amid concerns about whether he can win over black Democrats.
Warren and Klobuchar won delegates in the first two states but are increasingly constrained by smaller ad budgets as the race moves to bigger, more diverse states. They, too, are polling in single digits in South Carolina.
The biggest prizes on Super Tuesday are California, where Sanders is leading, and Texas, where he and Biden are effectively tied.
But that’s also the day Bloomberg makes his entrance into the race. With a $500 million ad budget, he’s sure to be a factor across 14-state landscape but has yet to show whether he can overtake Biden as the top challenger to Sanders or simply play spoiler and force a contested convention in which no candidate has a majority on the first ballot.
Smaller Super Tuesday states like Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma have little polling but hold a combined 294 delegates. Bloomberg has been campaigning in those states for three months while his opponents have been slogging through the early contests.
(Updates with Trump comment on debate in ninth paragraph.)
To contact the reporters on this story: Craig Gordon in Charleston, South Carolina at email@example.com;Gregory Korte in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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