CHARLESTON, S.C. — Democrats held their final debate before the South Carolina presidential primary and the critical Super Tuesday contests that follow three days later.
Here are some key takeaways.
Bernie Sanders is rarely a quiet voice, but he has managed to get through nine debates with few bruises. That ended Tuesday night when he was attacked on multiple fronts by every opponent.
The overarching themes: Sanders can rile up a crowd but can’t get things done. He is unelectable as a democratic socialist. He will drag down the Democratic House majority.
“Can anyone imagine moderate Republicans voting for him?” former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg asked. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar noted that Sanders’ proposals cost $60 trillion — triple the U.S. economy. “The math does not add up,” she warned.
Sanders parried some of the blows but also got into shouting matches. Asked by a moderate how he’d pay for his plans, he responded coolly, “How many hours do you have?”
Centrist Democrats who hoped the Vermont senator would come off as not electable may be heartened, but so could Sanders’ supporters who see their candidate as passionate and authentically unpolished.
Bloomberg bounce back
The good news for Bloomberg is this debate didn’t go as badly as the last one. The bad news is no one is grading on the curve.
He ceded prime target status to Sanders, but took his share of criticism. He still got scratched and occasionally came off as brittle.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren continued to be his nemesis, slamming him for funding Republican senators and for accusations that women at his company were mistreated. She brought up an allegation that Bloomberg had told a pregnant woman in his employ to “kill it” — which Bloomberg heatedly denied.
Later, he tried to make a joke about how everyone else onstage should have been scared to show up “after I did such a good job of beating them last week.”
The joke was one of many he offered up that didn’t land. A comedian’s timing he does not possess. A billionaire’s wallet, though, he does. And he bought advertising for the commercial breaks during the debate.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has called South Carolina his “firewall,” even before his dismal finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. If he gets the breakthrough he needs, it probably won’t be because of a sterling debate performance.
Biden seemed as comfortable as he has on any Democratic debate stage since the first encounters last June. But he had little to offer a new rationale for his candidacy.
Warren had to make a difficult straddle at the debate — she wanted to spotlight her liberal positions to pry voters from front-runner Sanders, but she also had to make a pitch for why they should back her rather than him.
She has been hesitant to fully voice her criticism of Sanders but leaned into it Tuesday night. “Bernie’s winning right now because the Democratic Party is a progressive party and progressive ideas are popular ideas,” she said.
Warren also reprised her attacks on Bloomberg, which might not help her win votes, but clearly helps her raise money.
Buttigieg: Good night, but votes?
If the race were about skill on the debate stage, it might be hard to deny Pete Buttigieg the nomination. He continued to answer questions with calm and clarity, and showed he could throw an elbow too.
But his path forward is still unclear, given that his support is overwhelmingly white — and the Democratic electorates in most upcoming primaries are not.
Buttigieg helped lead the moderates’ charge against Bernie Sanders, almost mocking the idea of a general election between Sanders and President Donald Trump. “Imagine spending the better part of 2020” listening to such a match-up, he pondered.
Klobuchar fights to be heard
The star of the New Hampshire debate had to fight to be heard in Charleston.
She had one striking moment, when she was asked about coronavirus and said the issue was too serious for politics. But she had a hard time breaking through at a time she may have needed it most.
The other billionaire
Tom Steyer has pinned his hopes on snatching South Carolina from Biden. But on Tuesday he looked like someone whose momentum has been yanked away.