Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) was the undisputed frontrunner heading into Tuesday night's Democratic debate in South Carolina, and the undisputed frontrunner he remains after opponents failed to land any blows against the socialist insurgent.
Viewers expecting a tag-team pile-on of the sort levied against former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg at last week's debate in Las Vegas were instead treated to a dreary muddle of loud voices and incoherent crosstalk. While Sanders's rivals did launch a barrage of attacks, the senator deflected them with ease. He was never overwhelmed the way Bloomberg appeared during his first debate appearance.
The attacks on Sanders came from across the political spectrum. Bloomberg flagged the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that "Russia is helping you get elected." Former vice president Joe Biden attacked Sanders's record from the left for not being strict enough on gun control, while others attacked Sanders from the right on the cost of his health care plan.
Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg warned that Sanders's radical policies would hurt the Democratic Party's chances of taking the Senate and maintaining a majority in the House. "The time has come for us to stop acting like the presidency is the only office that matters," said Buttigieg.
A number of the attacks on Sanders, however, were accompanied by cautious caveats, as the candidates appeared unwilling or unable to go for the jugular. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) said Sanders was mostly correct on policy, but argued that she "would make a better president." She continued to excoriate Bloomberg at every turn.
Billionaire Tom Steyer said Sanders's "analysis is right, but his solutions are wrong." Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) reminded people she was very concerned about the possibility of a socialist atop the Democratic ticket in 2020, but was once again unable to overcome the fact that she is irrelevant.
"I'm hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight," Sanders said at one point during the debate. "I wonder why?" It was a rhetorical question to which everyone knew the answer, though the other candidates on stage just didn't seem to grasp the reality of the situation: that Sanders is on the verge of effectively ending the Democratic primary on March 3, aka Super Tuesday. Sanders, in response to suggestions that his nomination would harm the Democratic Party, noted that he had the highest favorability rate of any candidate on stage. (He was right.)
CBS News Poll of Democratic voters who watched the debate:
Debate viewers said national frontrunner Sanders impressed them the most of any candidate, followed closely by Biden and then Warren. pic.twitter.com/3tzyxcN4I4
— CBS News Poll (@CBSNewsPoll) February 26, 2020
Biden boldly guaranteed victory in South Carolina, where voters will head to the polls on Saturday. His campaign must win the Palmetto State in order to survive much longer. Biden still hasn't won a single Democratic primary despite running for president three times since 1988.
Biden's lead in South Carolina has shrunk dramatically in recent weeks, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. Sanders has moved to within striking distance after victories in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.
Because South Carolina has a significant African-American population, the white candidates occasionally sparred on the issue of who had the most black friends.
"I've earned the vote of the African-American community," Biden declared, noting his relationship with former president Barack Obama, who has declined to endorse him. Steyer bragged that he's the only candidate to support reparations for slavery. Bloomberg boasted that he has donated lots of money to African-American politicians who have endorsed him and nearly slipped up by saying he "bought" a number of Democratic candidates who won midterm elections in 2018. Warren touted the fact that she talked "to people in selfie lines every day."
Buttigieg, who struggled to assert himself throughout the poorly moderated contest, did manage to deliver some of the cerebral wordplay that has helped make him the preferred candidate in the "boat shoe" strongholds of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket. Voters deserved better, Buttigieg said, than a choice between "Donald Trump with his nostalgia for the social order of the 1950s, and Bernie Sanders with his nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s."
President Trump, whose approval rating has been steadily improving while his prospective challengers battle it out in the Democratic primary, will head to Charleston, S.C., on Friday for what is sure to be the largest political rally in the state before voters head to the polls.