Bernie Sanders faces onslaught from rivals in chaotic South Carolina debate

Oliver Laughland in Charleston, South Carolina
Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

The Democratic presidential candidates engaged in a series of chaotic and fiery exchanges on Tuesday night, in the final debate before the critical South Carolina presidential primary and Super Tuesday contests, which could represent a make or break moment for several of the seven candidates on stage.

Senator Bernie Sanders, the current frontrunner who cruised to victory in Nevada last week, bore the brunt of criticism from a number of his centrist rivals, including vice-president Joe Biden, former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg and former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Buttigieg labelled Sanders a polarizing figure in the primary and warned of a race between him and Trump: “If you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders v Donald Trump,” he said.

The Vermont senator quickly acknowledged the heat he attracted, stating wryly: “I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight. I wonder why.”

In one of the earliest exchanges, Bloomberg – who is not on the ballot in South Carolina but is seeking to make gains in the 16 states and territories voting next Tuesday – referenced recent reports to suggest that Sanders’ campaign was benefitting from Russian interference in the 2020 primary.

“Russia is helping you get elected, so you will lose to him [Trump]” Bloomberg told Sanders, in an early attempt to recover from his disastrous first debate performance last week, as members of the audience jeered.

Addressing his response directly to Russian president Vladimir Putin, Sanders said: “If I’m president of the United States, trust me, you’re not going to interfere in any more American elections.”

The South Carolina primary marks the first vote in the deep south and will see African American voters form a majority of the electorate for the first time.

Biden has long courted voters in the black community, touting his record as vice-president to America’s first African American president. But recent polling has suggested that Sanders, buoyed by success in a multicultural electorate in Nevada, is now the frontrunner with black voters nationally.

Biden, who holds a slim lead in South Carolina according to recent polling, said he intends to win in the state on Saturday, and pledged to nominate an African American woman to the supreme court if elected. But he also tried to tear strips off Sanders, his closet rival the state.

Referencing the 2015 terror attack at Mother Emanuel AME church, which stands a few dozen feet from the debate state in downtown Charleston, Biden pointed to Sanders’ mixed voting record on gun control, and touted his own 1994 legislation implementing five day waiting periods for firearms purchases.

“I’m not saying he [Sanders] is responsible for the nine deaths [at Mother Emanuel],” Biden said. “But that man [the white supremacist Dylann Roof] would not have been able to get that weapon with the waiting period had been what I suggest[ed].”

Sanders initially tried to pivot to criticizing Biden for his record on trade deals, prompting more boos from the audience, before recanting: “I have cast thousands of votes, including bad votes,” Sanders said. “That was a bad vote.”

As with much of the debate there was little follow up questioning after Sanders’ significant acknowledgement, as moderators struggled to keep the candidates from interrupting each other, talking over each other, shouting, and speaking for longer than their assigned time limits.

The Trump campaign quickly seized on the disorder, issuing a statement saying: “The Democrat Party is a hot mess and tonight’s debate was further evidence that not one of these candidates is serious or can stand toe-to-toe with President Trump.”

Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a fellow progressive, also took aim at Sanders, saying the pair agree on a lot of things, but that she’d be a “better president”.

“Progressives have one shot, and we need to spend it on a leader who will get something done,” Warren said.

But Warren also renewed her attacks on Bloomberg over the billionaire philanthropist’s treatment of female employees. Warren, who saw a surge in fundraising after her attacks on Bloomberg at last week’s debate, resurfaced an allegation that Bloomberg had once told a pregnant subordinate to “kill it”.

A visibly riled Bloomberg replied: “Categorically never said it.”

The billionaire former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, returning to the debate stage as recent polls place him third in South Carolina, was also drawn into an angry exchange with Biden, who questioned his record investing in a private prison company, a move Steyer said he also regretted.

In a withering put down, Biden referred to Steyer as “Tommy come lately” as the billionaire pushed back and argued he had done more to support minority communities than the former vice-president.

As the debate wound to a close the candidates began to move the focus towards more pointed criticism of the Trump administration, particularly the president’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar criticized the administration’s funding cuts to the Centre for Disease Control, the US government agency responsible for helping prevent global outbreaks.

She argued that the president “hasn’t really yet addressed the nation on this topic” and urged the administration to work on better quarantine and treatment plans.

Shortly after the debate Trump, seemingly listening in to the discussion, tweeted: “CDC and my administration are doing a GREAT job handling Coronavirus…”