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Stakes, tempers high as Democrat rivals square off in key South Carolina debate


CHARLESTON, S.C. — High political stakes and a ticking electoral clock triggered short tempers and strong words Tuesday as the Democrats vying to defeat Donald Trump clawed away at each other on the debate stage in South Carolina, saving their strongest vitriol for the two most prominent outsiders: independent front-runner Bernie Sanders and billionaire Mike Bloomberg.

Both literally and figuratively, Sanders — the standard-bearer for America's progressive left — found himself front and centre in the final televised debate before South Carolina voters head to the polls Saturday, three days before nearly 1,400 delegates go up for grabs next week on Super Tuesday.

"I'm hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight," Sanders deadpanned at one point. "I wonder why."

With 14 states and one territory voting next week, time has nearly run out for much of the field to attract votes and financial support before Sanders builds an insurmountable lead, which is why he found himself the target of multiple attacks. Bloomberg, despite a lack of experience that was on display again Tuesday, also remains a formidable rival, thanks to his bottomless campaign war chest.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who kneecapped Bloomberg in his disastrous maiden debate last week in Nevada, sought to reprise that performance with a searing attack on the former New York mayor, accusing him of urging one of his pregnant employees to "kill it" — a charge Bloomberg strenuously denied.

Warren also took a rare swipe at Sanders, her progressive ally, painting him as a divisive figure whose nomination would be a disaster for the Democrats — a common theme throughout the night.

"Progressive ideas are popular ideas, even if there are lot of people on this stage who don't want to say so," Warren said.

"Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better president than Bernie and the reason for that is that getting a progressive agenda enacted is going to be really hard, and it is going to take someone who digs into the details to make it happen."

Bloomberg, keen to erase memories of Nevada, took early aim at Sanders, citing recent intelligence reports that indicate Russia has been meddling in the campaign on behalf of the independent senator from Vermont.

"Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States," he said. "That is why Russia is helping you get elected, so you will lose to him."

Russia is indeed sowing chaos in the U.S. electoral process, and that's exactly what they'll get if Sanders becomes the nominee, said Mike Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.

"If you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump. Think about what that will be like for this country," Buttigieg said.

"There's a majority of the American people who I think, right now, just want to be able to turn on the TV, see their president, and just feel their blood pressure go down a little bit, instead of up through the roof." 

It's critical for rivals to slow the Sanders roll: South Carolina is a must-win for former vice-president Joe Biden, while Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar are running low on money and are desperate to build some all-important fundraising momentum going into Saturday's vote.

Biden tried to show a combative side at times, especially when the discussion turned to Barack Obama or foreign policy — two subjects that allow him to tout his White House experience.

"This is a guy who doesn't have a democratic bone in his body," he said of Chinese president Xi Jinping. "This is a guy who I was able to convince to join ... the Paris agreement (on climate change) because guess what? They need to be involved ... (but) they must play by the rules."   

He also elicited a roar from the audience when he promised to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court. At other times, though, Biden found himself drowned out in the crossfire or unable to insert himself into the discussion.

"Can we just speak up when we want to? Is that the idea?" he said plaintively at one point. "Gentlemen don't get treated well up here."

Sanders, a self-styled "democratic socialist" who conjures fear in the party establishment in much the same way Trump once did among Republicans, also seems to have supporters in Canada: he led a recent online survey by the Angus Reid Institute with the backing of 28 per cent of respondents. Biden registered second at 14 per cent.

Sanders often invokes Canada in his public comments, especially when talking about his signature "Medicare For All" policy plank.

"Somehow they manage to guarantee health care for every man, woman, and child in that country at half the cost that we spend per capita," he said. "Is guaranteeing health care to all people as a human right a radical idea?"

Sanders largely batted away attacks on how he plans to pay for big-ticket promises like Medicare For All, free college tuition and forgiven student debt. He denied reports that he considered a primary challenge against Barack Obama in 2012, and defended and a recent interview in which he praised a Cuban "literacy program" launched by Fidel Castro in the early 1960s.

More than once, the candidates returned to the night's overarching theme: a battle between Democratic ideology and a fervent desire to beat Trump in November.

"This conversation shows a huge risk for the Democratic party," Steyer said after one sustained stretch of incomprehensible crosstalk. "We are looking at a party that has decided it is either going to support a democratic socialist or somebody who has a long history of being a Republican," referring to Bloomberg.

"I am scared. If we cannot pull this party together, if we go to one of those extremes, we take a terrible risk of re-electing Donald Trump."  

When it comes to the question of whether either Sanders or Bloomberg can win a general election, it's worth bearing in mind that people used to wonder the same thing about the current occupant of the White House, said Charles Bierbauer, a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina.

"In one sense, we're so far away from the conventional wisdom elections of the past, where you could lay this thing out and based on trajectory and timeline, say, here's what's going to happen,'" Bierbauer said.

"If you say Bernie Sanders can't win, then how do you account for Donald Trump?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2020.

—Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

James McCarten, The Canadian Press