Self-proclaimed Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders immediately defended his view of the economy as Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate opened in South Carolina.
Asked how he'd sell his view to Americans in a vibrant economy, Sanders turned the conversation to rival and billionaire media mogul Mike Bloomberg, saying: "The economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg and other billionaires. In the last three years, last three years, billionaires in this country saw an $850 billion increase in their wealth. But you know what? For for the ordinary American, things are not so good. Last year, real wage increases for the average worker were less than 1%. Half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck."
Bloomberg, not taking the bait, shot back, "I think Donald Trump thinks it would be better if he's president. I do not think so. Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States, and that's why Russia is helping you get elected.
So it began on Tuesday, and it only got more aggressive as Democrats unleashed a roaring assault against Sanders’ electability and seized on Bloomberg’s past with women in the workplace. The raucous forum was a practical test of the strength of the two men leading their party’s presidential nomination fight.
Sanders, his status as the Democratic front-runner undeniable after early primary and caucus wins, faced the brunt of the attacks in a fierce round of early action.
Even Sanders' ideological ally, Elizabeth Warren, questioned the Vermont senator's ability to lead the nation.
“Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better president than Bernie,” Warren charged.
Sanders, under attack for much of the night, noted the additional attention: “I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight. I wonder why?”
The new wave of infighting came as Democrats met for the party's 10th — and perhaps most consequential — debate of the 2020 primary season. The forum came just four days before South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary and one week before more than a dozen states vote on Super Tuesday.
The intensity of Tuesday's clash, with candidates repeatedly yelling over each other, reflected the reality that the Democrats’ establishment wing is quickly running out of time to stop the polarizing progressive, Sanders.
Indeed, even some critics, Bloomberg among them, conceded that the Vermont senator could build an insurmountable delegate lead as soon as next week.
The Democrats' 2020 class will not stand side-by-side on the debate stage again until the middle of next month, making Tuesday’s debate the best, and perhaps last, chance for some candidates to save themselves and alter the trajectory of the high-stakes nomination fight.
Bloomberg was the focus last week for his highly anticipated debut, but after a bad performance that froze his momentum, the knives were out for the 78-year-old Vermont senator.
The night marked a bitter-sweet high point of sorts for Sanders' decades-long political career.
After spending nearly three decades as an outside agitator who delighted in tearing into his party’s establishment, that same establishment was suddenly fighting to take him down.
Yet Warren saved her fiercest attacks for Bloomberg.
She cut hard at Bloomberg’s record as a businessman, bringing up reports of one particular allegation that he told a pregnant employee “to kill it,” a reference to the woman’s unborn child. Bloomberg fiercely denied the allegation, but acknowledged he sometimes made comments that were inappropriate.
Bloomberg “cannot earn the trust of the core of the Democratic Party,” Warren said. “He is the riskiest candidate standing on this stage.”
Bloomberg denied the exchange from the pregnant employee.
Turning toward Sanders, Bloomberg made the case that both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are in lockstep in their belief that Sanders would make the weakest Democratic general election rival for the incumbent Trump. Last week, Sanders acknowledged that he’d be been briefed by intelligence officials who said that Russia is attempting to interfere in the elections to benefit him.
“Vladimir Trump thinks Donald Trump should be president of the United States and that’s why Russia is helping you get elected so you lose to him,” Bloomberg said.
Sanders shot back, "Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me you’re not going to interfere in any more American elections.’”
Biden was also looking to make a big impression in South Carolina, where he was long viewed as the unquestioned front-runner because of his support from black voters.
Biden slammed Sanders for his support of the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, legislation that protects gun manufacturers and sellers from laws that attempt to hold them liable for dealing firearms that end up in the hand of criminals.
“My friend to my right, and others, have in fact also given in to gun manufacturers absolute immunity,” said Biden, referring to Sanders backing of the controversial gun legislation. “Imagine if I stood here and said, ‘We give immunity to drug companies. We give immunity to tobacco companies.' That has caused carnage on our streets. "
Sanders proudly highlighted his “D minus” rating from the pro-gun organization. And just last week, several gun control advocates who survived the Parkland, Florida, school shooting endorsed him.
Also a factor Tuesday: Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who has borrowed heavily from his personal fortune to fuel a strong push in South Carolina, where he's threatening to peel away some of Biden's support with state's black voters. Rivals Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are also fighting to win over moderates while decrying Sanders' chief policy priorities.
Sanders' handling of the pressure could be crucial in determining whether he stays at the top of the Democratic pack.
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