The Democratic White House hopefuls slugged it out on Tuesday at the party's 10th presidential debate, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) coming under a fierce volley of attacks ahead of Saturday’s primary in South Carolina.
Here are five takeaways from a heated night in Charleston, S.C.
Rivals desperate to stop Sanders
Sanders occupied the center spot on stage, and it was clear from the onset that the front-runner would be the focus of attacks from rivals who feel they have only a few days to stop him.
The senator is eyeing a top finish in South Carolina after victories in Nevada and New Hampshire and a close second-place finish in Iowa. Rivals warn that strong showings in California and Texas next week could propel him to an insurmountable delegate lead.
Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg kicked off the attacks against Sanders on Tuesday night, warning in the opening minutes of the debate that Russia wants Sanders to be the nominee because he’ll lose to President Trump.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) followed by arguing that Sanders would not be able to implement his progressive agenda because he’s too divisive.
Former Vice President Joe Biden blamed Sanders’s votes against gun control legislation for several mass shootings.
And former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg blasted Sanders for his “nostalgia for revolutionary politics of the 1960s” — a reference to his praise of Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba.
“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight,” Sanders quipped. “I wonder why.”
Perhaps the most urgent argument Sanders’s rivals made centered on the question of his electability.
Some mainstream Democrats are in a panic over the prospect of nominating a self-described democratic socialist.
Sanders’s rivals were unequivocal Tuesday: nominating the independent progressive would lead to a second term for Trump, and potentially cost Democrats the House.
“It adds up to four more years of Donald Trump in the White House, Kevin McCarthy [R-Calif.] as Speaker, and an inability to get the Senate in Democratic hands,” Buttigieg argued.
Sanders pushed back, pointing to 47 of 50 recent national polls that show him leading Trump in a head-to-head match-up, as well as his strength in key Midwest states the Democrats must win back to take the White House.
Warren is hellbent on sinking Bloomberg
For the second consecutive debate, Warren looked to deliver the knockout blow against Bloomberg, the late-to-the-race billionaire and former Republican who progressives loathe.
Warren went after Bloomberg for past remarks in which he blamed racial minorities for the 2008 financial collapse.
She ticked through all of the Republican candidates he’s supported financially, including her own challenger in 2012, former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.).
Warren returned to the issue of nondisclosure agreements, alleging that Bloomberg oversaw a toxic workplace for women and demanding that he release them from the nondisclosure agreements they’d signed.
And she hammered Bloomberg for not having released his tax returns, likening him to Trump.
“I don’t care how much money he has, the core of the Democratic Party will never trust him,” Warren said. “He’s the riskiest candidate standing on this stage.”
Bloomberg was not blindsided this time around, as he was in Las Vegas. He disputed allegations that he supported the practice of redlining and denied that he ever told a woman who worked for him to "kill it" when he found out she was pregnant.
But Warren’s attacks are landing, and it’s notable that she’s going hardest after Bloomberg, rather than Sanders, who stands in her way for the nomination.
Candidates are battling to win over black voters
The Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina is more than half African American, testing the candidates’ abilities to reach a diverse coalition of voters who represent the backbone of the Democratic Party.
Biden has been working to ward off a challenge from Sanders, who has been gaining in the polls among black voters and hopes to slam the doors shut on Biden’s campaign in South Carolina.
But Biden had his strongest debate performance yet and has reason to feel good heading into Election Day in the Palmetto State on Saturday.
The former vice president repeatedly touted his work under President Obama, the nation’s first black president. Biden also name-dropped Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), one of the state’s most powerful black leaders, who is expected to endorse Biden on Wednesday.
Sanders, meanwhile, hammered home the idea that the U.S. must overhaul its drug laws and criminal justice system.
Businessman Tom Steyer has also drawn support from black voters in South Carolina, recent polls have shown, and his support margin among that group will be a key focus depending on how Biden finishes.
The rest of the candidates on Tuesday night repeatedly returned to issues that are important to black voters, but it’s far past the deadline for candidates to have put in the hard work that earns the support of black voters at the ballot box.
Candidates frantically searching for attention, votes before Super Tuesday
With the South Carolina primary on Saturday and Super Tuesday only 72 hours later, it’s desperation time.
It’s possible that this was the last debate for one or more of the seven remaining candidates on stage, and that desperation showed over the course of the unruly, two-hour debate in Charleston.
Long stretches of time were eaten up as the candidates shouted over one another.
The CBS moderators completely lost control at points during the debate, which became a free-for-all benefitting whichever candidate outlasted or shouted loud enough over his or her rivals.
That led to some frustration among centrist Democrats and progressives alike, who feel their candidates didn’t get a fair shake.
Debate will raise fears about negativity among the candidates
The Las Vegas debate last week was an all-out war. The Charleston debate may have matched it for its level of negativity.
The candidates are not just fighting to win — there is clear animosity and bad blood between some of them.
Klobuchar appears to truly dislike Buttigieg. Warren’s attacks on Bloomberg are blunt and cutting. Progressives will squirm watching Sanders and Warren criticize one another. Centrist Democrats will again throw their hands up, wondering why the moderate candidates continue to tear each other down instead of focusing solely on Sanders.
“If we spend the next few months tearing our party apart, we’ll spend the next four years watching Donald Trump tear this country apart,” Klobuchar warned Tuesday.
There will be plenty of time for Democrats to unite. But fears of a divided and bitter base could persist for a while after a brutal nominating process.