South Carolina debate: Leading candidates turn their attention to Bernie Sanders as he gains momentum in early primary contests

Sanders managed a quick opening shot at former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, targeting his wealth, when asked to explain how he would campaign against Trump when the economy is doing so well.

“You’re right the economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg and other billionaires,” Sanders said to laughter. But after that moment, he was continually on defense.

Bloomberg immediately turned on Sanders, arguing that “Russia is helping you get elected.”

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren jumped into the conversation by taking a rare shot at Sanders, her longtime ally.

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

She noted that when she had outlined a more detailed explanation of how she would pay for “Medicare for All,” “Bernie’s team trashed me for it.”

“No,” Sanders responded, standing next to her and shaking his head.

Asked why Russia would want to help Sanders’ campaign, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said Russian leaders wanted to sow chaos.

“They want chaos and chaos is what’s coming our way,” Buttigieg said. He described the past three years under Trump as “chaotic, divisive, toxic and exhausting.”

“Imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump,” Buttigieg said.

Sanders was always likely to be the main target on Tuesday, rather than Bloomberg, who is not participating in Saturday’s contest in South Carolina because he decided to skip the first four primary and caucus states.

With the exception of Buttigieg, the 2020 Democratic contenders have generally handled Sanders with a light touch in prior debates. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders have clashed over “Medicare for All,” and Biden and the other candidates have increasingly faulted Sanders for not outlining exactly how he would pay for some of his pricier proposals. Sanders has said he would pay for his plans, in part, through a tax on Wall Street speculation.

But if Sanders pulls off a sizable delegate haul in Tuesday’s contests, it could become theoretically impossible for other candidates to catch up to his delegate count, with 1,991 delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination.

Buttigieg, Bloomberg and Biden have all foreshadowed the attacks they will use on Sanders in recent days.

After the caucuses in Nevada, Buttigieg outlined his case that Democrats would be taking an enormous risk by nominating Sanders and he has echoed that message in many of his campaign stops since then.

“Sen. Sanders believes in an inflexible ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans,” Buttigieg said in that pointed critique last Saturday.

He argued that Sanders’ embrace of Medicare for All — instead of government-run health care for those who want it, which is his own position — would be an albatross in November. Buttigieg also charged that Sanders views capitalism as “the root of all evil.”

“We can prioritize either ideological purity or inclusive victory. We can either call people names online or we can call them into our movement,” Buttigieg said, referring to the aggressive online tactics of some of Sanders’ supporters. “This is our only shot to beat Donald Trump, so I am asking Americans to make sure that we get this choice right.”

Timothy O’Brien, Bloomberg’s senior adviser, previewed some of his candidate’s attacks in an interview Tuesday with CNN’s “New Day” by suggesting Sanders has not been seriously vetted.

“He has not been good on immigration; he has not been good on criminal justice reform; he was an avid backer of the 1994 crime bill,” O’Brien said. “He is bad on guns, bad on immigration.”

“There’s a real risk for voters here because Bernie Sanders has not been fully vetted,” O’Brien later told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday afternoon.

Other candidates look for major moment

Biden’s campaign also put out a digital ad this week taking Sanders to task for stating in 2011 that it would be a “good idea” if then-President Barack Obama faced some “primary opposition” in his quest for reelection.

Bloomberg, who has spent more than $450 million on television ads in the states beyond South Carolina, has also targeted Sanders as a socialist whose views are out of step with mainstream America. He is expected to highlight his disagreements with Sanders on gun issues, which was the focus of a new ad he released this week.

Like other Bloomberg advisers, O’Brien predicted that his own candidate has now gained his “sea legs” and would be better prepared for any attacks that come his way tonight.

“I think he has to be ready to be the target of everyone else on stage,” O’Brien said. “There was something of a circular firing squad in the last debate. I think he got his sea legs halfway through that debate, but he has to have his sea legs at the beginning of the debate tonight for sure.”

Biden is fighting for survival, counting on the support of black voters who dominate the primary in the Palmetto State to carry him to victory in a place that he once called his firewall.

Buttigieg, Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar are all hoping for breakout moments that would lend an air of viability — and an infusion of cash — to their campaigns as they head into Tuesday’s blockbuster primary, where 14 states and one territory will award a total of 1,357 delegates.

Warren’s impressive performance in the Las Vegas debate, where she took Bloomberg to task for sexual harassment and gender discrimination lawsuits against himself and his company, gave a much-needed jolt of energy to her campaign. The Massachusetts senator raised $9 million over three days, according to her campaign manager, granting her a reprieve at a time when federal campaign finance reports show she was running out of money.

Bloomberg last week did offer to release three women from their nondisclosure agreements, if they contacted his company.

This is a breaking story and will be updated.

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