With days to go before South Carolina votes and not much longer before 14 other states weigh in on Super Tuesday, Sanders was a clear target for his competitors in Charleston, South Carolina, who in large part have stayed away from attacking him head-on in other debates.
That changed in the rowdy debate’s second minute, when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the Vermont senator, “Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States, and that’s why Russia is helping you get elected, so you’ll lose to him.”
“We know what Russia wants, it’s chaos!” former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg interjected, after Sanders delivered a forceful disavowal of any Russian help.
Aside from that line of attack, which was based on a recent Washington Post report, the attacks against Sanders were largely based on his established record — Sanders twice, for example, bragged of his “D-” voting score from the National Rifle Association after former Vice President Joe Biden brought up his 2005 vote to protect gun manufacturers from lawsuits.
Some on stage even took a downright diplomatic tack, most notably the two candidates closest to Sanders’ left flank, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Tom Steyer.
“Bernie and I agree on a lot of things,” Warren said. “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’s going to take someone who digs into the details to make it happen.”
Steyer concurred: “Bernie Sanders’ analysis is right. The difference is I don’t like his solutions.”
Buttigieg, arguing against Sanders, appealed to voters’ concerns about the 2020 campaign — and, frankly, about their sanity.
“If you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump,” he said, adding: “There’s a majority of American people who I think right now just want to be able to turn on the TV, see their president, and actually feel their blood pressure go down a little bit instead of up through the roof.”
Sanders tipped his hat to the new attention. “I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight, I wonder why!” he said.
Things heated up a bit in the debate’s health-care potion, in which candidates tag teamed their attacks on the funding structure for Sanders’ Medicare For All plan.
“It will kick 149 million Americans off the their current health insurance in four years,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) said. “It adds up as four more years of Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House, and the inability to get the senate in democracy hands,” Buttigieg argued. “Bernie, in fact, hasn’t passed much of anything,” Biden said a couple minutes later.
Sanders, yelling at times to get a word in edgewise, went back to basics.
“What every study out there, conservative or progressive, says, [is] Medicare for All will save money,” he said.
Perhaps the most contentious moment for Sanders came with regard to his past praise of Fidel Castro’s literacy program. The senator has criticized the late Cuban dictator’s authoritarian rule, but his opponents have framed the remarks as an election issue.
Sanders pointed to former President Barack Obama, who Sanders said acknowledged that Cuba “made great progress on education and health care” under Castro.
“Barack Obama was abroad in a town meeting, he did not in any way suggest that there was anything positive about the Cuban government,” Biden shot back, adding of Sanders: “He did not condemn what they did.”
“That is categorically untrue!” Sanders said, shouting even above his normal register, before again condemning Castro’s authoritarianism.
Buttigieg followed up the spat with a few zingers focused on electability, the trait it seemed he wanted South Carolina voters to ponder on Saturday.
“We’re not going to win these critical House and Senate races if people in those races have to explain why the nominee of the Democratic Party is telling people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime,” he said.