We’re in the endgame now. On Tuesday night, seven Democrats faced off in Charleston for the last Democratic debate of February, just a few days before the South Carolina primary. Crucially, it is also the final debate before Super Tuesday on March 3, when more than a third of all delegates for the Democratic National Convention will be decided.
So far, 2020 has been Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ year. The self-described democratic socialist swept the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22, winning 24 pledged delegates with 46.8% of the vote. Former Vice President Joe Biden came in second with 20.2%, winning nine delegates, and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg came third with 14.3%, winning three delegates. Sanders has done well throughout the primary; he was neck-and-neck with Buttigieg in Iowa — Buttigieg gained 13 delegates to Sanders’ 12 — and won the New Hampshire primary with 25.7% of the vote (Buttigieg came in a close second with 24.4%.)
Sanders’ sweep in Nevada exhibited his strength with non-white voters, particularly Latinos, and South Carolina will be a crucial test for his campaign. Biden has many of the states’ key endorsement and, as of Tuesday, RealClearPolitics’ polling average has him polling at 30.3% in the state to Sanders’ 22.3%. Two-thirds of likely voters for the Democratic primary in the state are African American, and Biden has polled well with throughout the primary and won the demographic in Nevada. But South Carolina might not be as safely Biden’s as pundits once thought. Billionaire executive Tom Steyer has also heavily invested in South Carolina, and Sanders came in second among black voters in Nevada, with 28 to Biden’s 38%.
Before South Carolinians head to the polls, candidates made their case during the Democratic primary debate, co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute in Charleston. Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Steyer, Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren all appeared on stage.
CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell and CBS This Morning host Gayle King moderated the debate. Face The Nation moderator Margaret Brennan, CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett and 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker also asked questions.
To qualify for the debate, candidates had to either:
- Be allocated at least one pledged delegate from previous contests.
- Receive at least 10% in at least four DNC-approved polls or 12% in two polls from South Carolina.
Before the Nevada Democratic debate, candidates also had to meet a donor threshold, blocking former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has pledged to self-fund his campaign. But beginning with the ninth debate the DNC announced it would no longer require certain donor numbers, paving the way for the billionaire to qualify.
Tuesday’s debate could be one of the most crucial debates of the primary. “In general, debates do not matter much in determining how someone votes. They usually just reinforce the beliefs one already has about a candidate,” Kendra Stewart, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston, writes TIME in an email. “However, with still so many undecided voters in South Carolina, this debate could have a tremendous impact on Saturday’s primary.”
Here are highlights and the biggest moments from the South Carolina debate.
Sanders addresses past remarks on communist countries
Bernie Sanders spent time during the debate defending his past comments supporting programs implemented by socialist and communist countries.
Over the past week, an interview with 60 Minutes has renewed attention on Sanders’ past praise of policies implemented by Cuba. Sanders was asked about comments he made in the 1980s where he said that Fidel Castro’s regime had “totally transformed the society” by providing healthcare and education.
In the interview with 60 Minutes, Sanders argued that it was possible to praise policies that the Cuban government got right while also being critical of the regime. In Tuesday’s debate, Sanders responded to questions about his former statements by criticizing China for being a dictatorship. He also credited Cuba with making progress on education.
As the crowd started to boo, he said “Really? Literacy programs are bad?” Sanders added that it would be a “good idea to be honest about American foreign policy.” He noted that the U.S. has overthrown other countries’ governments.
“And when dictatorships, whether it is the Chinese or the Cubans, do something good, you acknowledge that. But you don’t have to trade love letters with them,” Sanders said, as a shot to President Trump’s communications with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
Sanders has long expressed an interest in socialist countries. During the 1980s, he visited the U.S.S.R. and Nicaragua and also expressed praise for certain policies, such as the U.S.S.R.’s public transportation system.
Sanders called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu racist
Sanders addressed the fact that he would become the U.S.’s first Jewish President if he beat Trump come November. “You recently called a very prominent well known American-Israel lobby a platform for, ’bigotry,’” Major Garrett asked the senator. “What would you say to American Jews who might be concerned that you’re not, from their perspective, supportive enough of Israel?” He continued, “Specifically sir, would you move the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv?”
President Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, breaking from decades of U.S. policy. The move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem meant the U.S. officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Both the Palestinians and Israeli’s claim the city as their capital, and it contains important religious significance Jews, Muslims and Christians
.“It’s something that we would take into consideration,” Sanders responded about moving the embassy back. But he continued, “I am very proud of being Jewish. I actually lived in Israel for some months.”
“But what I happen to believe is that right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel, through Bibi Netanyahu, you have a reactionary, racist, who is now running that country,” he said. Sanders added that he believes the U.S. Middle East policy should “absolutely” be about protecting Israel’s independence, but stressed that “you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people.”
Biden and Klobuchar discuss the “boyfriend loophole”
In a larger discussion about gun control, Klobuchar plugged a Senate bill she authored to close the “boyfriend loophole,” and said the bill would make it so domestic abusers “can’t go out and get an AK-47.”
“I wrote that law,” Biden jumped in. Klobuchar replied, “You didn’t write that bill. I wrote that bill.” Biden pushed back, saying that he proposed and introduced the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which on top of many things, made it illegal for people who have been convicted of domestic abuse to purchase firearms. But he then continued that the “one thing” he couldn’t get covered was the “boyfriend loophole.”
What is the boyfriend loophole? Current law makes it illegal for for someone to buy a firearm if they’ve been convicted of domestic abuse against someone they were once married to, lived with, have a child with or are the parent or guardian of their victim. Gun control activists argue that this allows stalkers, current boyfriends or partners of victims to still purchase firearms. Klobuchar has written a bill to address this. However, neither Klobuchar’s bill, nor the reauthorization of Biden’s Violence Against Women Act, have been taken up by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Candidates discussed COVID-19
COVID-19 — also known as the novel coronavirus — was raised by King. The moderator said that although the disease is largely centered in mainland China, the Centers for Disease Control warned today that it’s not a matter of “if the disease will spread to [the U.S.], but when.” King asked Klobuchar if she believes the U.S. should close its borders to returning Americans who have been exposed to the coronavirus. Klobuchar responded that America should have treatment for those returning citizens and make sure they are quarantined. She added that viewers should go to the CDC’s website cdc.gov so they can understand the symptoms of the disease, and said as President she would coordinate to improve responses to infectious diseases.
Biden pitched his experience combating infectious diseases from his time setting up an office on pandemics in the Obama Administration. He added that he would increase the National Institute of Health’s budget and restore the funding to the CDC.
Sanders jumped in to add that America needs to work to expand a world health organization with substantial funding to fight such diseases.
Warren draws attention to Bloomberg’s sex discrimination accusations
Elizabeth Warren again took Bloomberg to task for failing to fully release women who had accused him of sexual discrimination from non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).
Although Bloomberg agreed to release three women from their NDA agreements after Warren drew attention to the contracts during the Feb. 19 debate, Warren and other candidates have argued that there may be outstanding NDAs and that a blanket release is necessary to ensure no one is remaining under an NDA.
During Tuesday’s debate, Warren argued that, for her, discrimination issues are personal. She recounted that when she was young, a school principal gave her teaching job away when Warren was visibly pregnant.
“Pregnancy discrimination? You bet,” said Warren, noting that although she wasn’t protected by a union or federal law, “At least I didn’t have a boss who said to me ‘kill it.’ They way that Mayor Bloomberg is alleged to have said to one of his pregnant employees.”
Warren was referring to allegations by a former saleswoman, who sued the former mayor and his company after Bloomberg allegedly told her to “kill” her fetus. Warren repeated her argument that women should have an “opportunity to speak” by giving them a blanket release from all NDAs.
Bloomberg denied the allegation and insisted that if Warren had been a teacher in New York City, she would never have been discriminated against. However, another Bloomberg employee reportedly told the Washington Post that he had been present during the conversation and confirmed that Bloomberg had asked her, “are you going to kill it?”
Education takes the spotlight
During the debate each candidate took a moment to pitch their policy on education. Bill Whitaker first asked Bloomberg if he would seek to expand charter schools, as he did when he was mayor of New York City.
“I’m not sure they’re appropriate to every place, I can only tell you that in New York they provided parents with an alternative to send students to them,” he responded. “When I came into office, zero New York City schools were in the top 25 of the state. When I left, 23 out of 25 were in New York City.” However, ChalkBeat reports that many of those schools are highly selective.
Warren said that she would appoint a secretary of education who has taught in public school and believes in public education. She said her secretary of education will “believe that public dollars belong in public schools,” a clear jab at the school-choice movement, supported by the Trump administration. She added she would also limit high stakes testing. Sanders followed her, adding that he would dramatically increase early childhood education, and said he would make public colleges and universities free. He also said he would make sure teachers make no less than $60,000. Buttigieg agreed that America needs to value its teachers more.
Bloomberg again addresses stop-and-frisk
Early on the debate Bloomberg was asked about the controversial program known as “stop and frisk.” The program allowed police to stop and search people they thought had or would commit a crime. While he inherited the program, it grew during his tenure as mayor. The NYPD program disproportionately affected Black and Latino communities and, according to the ACLU, there’s no evidence that it leads to lower crime rates.
Bloomberg said that he left stop-and-frisk get “out of control,” and once he realized it had gone too far he cut it back by 95%.
It’s not immediately clear what he meant. According to the fact-checking website PolitiFact, the program slowly declined amid public outcry and several lawsuits, which led U.S. District Judge Sharia A. Scheindlin to rule that carrying out the program violated the Constitution. Bloomberg has repeatedly defended the program and supported its growth. During the debate, Bloomberg added that he “apologized and asked for forgiveness” for the program. This is true, but his first apology was in the weeks before he announced his candidacy for President.
When asked, both Buttigieg and Klobuchar said the program was racist.
Buttigieg argued Sanders could lose the Democrats the House
Klobuchar, Steyer and Buttigieg each attacked Sanders for potentially costing the Democratic party its majority in the House of Representatives because of his progressive policies.
Buttigieg argued that Sanders’ proposed spending “adds up to four more years of Donald Trump. Kevin McCarthy is the Speaker of the House. And the inability to get the Senate into Democratic hands.” He added that if Democrats want to keep the house they should “check with people who turned the House blue” in 2018.
Buttigieg pointed to the roughly 40 Democrats who flipped Republican districts, and argued that “they are not running for [Sanders’] platform, they are running away from your platform.” Buttigieg is right that most of the Democrats who flipped districts during the 2018 support moderate policy platforms. None have endorsed Sanders.
Biden added that of those moderate Democrats, many have endorsed him.
Later in the debate Bloomberg said he spent $100 million to help elect 21 of the 40 Democrats in question.
Buttigieg and Bloomberg argue Russia wants Sanders to win
The debate started with Sanders taking a question about the economy, and Sanders quickly responded that it was doing well for billionaires, including Bloomberg. Bloomberg replied that he doesn’t agree the economy is better under Trump and added, “Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be President of the United States, and that’s why Russia is helping you get elected.”
“Oh, Mr. Bloomberg,” Sanders responded, and then addressed the Russian President. “Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m President of the United States, trust me, you’re not going to interfere in any more American elections.”
Buttigieg stepped into the fray, arguing that while Russia would want Sanders as a nominee to create chaos, he will bring the country together.
“I mean, look, 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,” Buttigieg said.The former South Bend, Ind., mayor argued that he will appeal to Americans who “actually want to feel their blood pressure go down a little bit instead of through the roof.”
Warren differentiates herself from Sanders, saying she’d “get something done”
Early in the debate, Warren argued that she would be the best progressive choice compared to Sanders because she would actually “dig in and do the hard work.” She reiterated her message that “she has a plan,” and argued that she is better at enacting the progressive policies that both she and Sanders support.
The Massachusetts senator pointed to the fact that both she and Sanders oppose the power of Wall Street, but she said that she “fought the big banks,” “built coalitions” and brought about the Consumer Protection Bureau.
She added that she’s released a policy proposal on how to accomplish universal healthcare while Sanders has not, and added that “I dug in and did the work, and then Bernie’s team trashed me for it.”
“Progressive have one shot, and we need to spend it with a leader who would get something done,” she said.
Correction, Feb. 25
The original version of this story misstated how many moderate Democrats who flipped moderate districts in 2018 have endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination for President. None of them have endorsed him, not some of them.