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South Carolina Democratic debate live updates: Candidates faced off in Charleston

The 10th Democratic debate was the last before the nominating contests in South Carolina on Saturday and 14 other states on Super Tuesday.
Image: Seven Democratic candidates will take the stage in a primary debate in South Carolina on Feb. 25, 2020.
Seven Democratic candidates will take the stage in a primary debate in South Carolina on Feb. 25, 2020.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

The leading Democratic presidential candidates came out swinging at the party's 10th debate in Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday night.

The debate quickly descended into chaos as the current front-runner, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, faced a torrent of attacks from all sides, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren confronted former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg over his treatment of women, and several of the candidates literally shouted over each other about health care.

The two-hour debate, co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, is the final verbal bout before the candidates head into South Carolina's primary on Saturday and the Super Tuesday nominating contests of 14 states on March 3, where more than a third of Democratic National Convention delegates are up for grabs.

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Read our debate coverage:

Live Blog

Jim Clyburn endorses Joe Biden

CHARLESTON, S.C. — House Majority Whip, and influential South Carolina Democrat, Rep. Jim Clyburn made his endorsement of Joe Biden official on Wednesday morning, praising the former vice president's record and years of service for the state. 

Clyburn's endorsement comes after NBC News learned he would endorse the former Vice President, but held off on the announcement until after Tuesday night's Democratic debate. Clyburn first announced the endorsement in a tweet, before appearing with Biden in person, writing, "Joe Biden has stood for the hard-working people of South Carolina. We know Joe, but more importantly, he knows us." 

However, Clyburn said he struggled to decide if he should make an endorsement in this race even though he had long decided who he would vote for. He said it was not until he met an elderly constituent at his accountant’s Richland County funeral last week that Clyburn realized he could not stay silent. The constituent said they were waiting to hear from Clyburn before deciding who they would vote for. 

"I decided, then and there, that I would not stay silent," Clyburn said. 

Clyburn continued, "I want the public to know that I am voting for Joe Biden, South Carolina should be voting for Joe Biden." 

As the House Majority Whip and the longest serving Democrat from South Carolina, Clyburn’s influence in the “first-in-the-South” primary is immense given his extensive networks to mobilize support. While his endorsement was not a surprise, it comes at a time when Biden needed an extra vote of confidence to prevent opponents from eroding his support among African American community.

"Nobody with whom I've ever worked with public life, is anymore committed to that motto, that pledge that I have to my constituents than Joe Biden," Clyburn said. "I know his heart, I know who he is, I know what he is." 

Following Clyburn’s remarks, Biden was visibly emotional, wiping away tears from his eyes as he recounted how kind Clyburn and his deceased wife Emily have been to him throughout his career. Echoing Clyburn, Biden boldly stated that South Carolinians and the country are not talking about wanting a “revolution” — a jab at Sen. Bernie Sanders. Instead, he said people are looking for results, which he and Clyburn have been able to do at the national level when they spearheaded the Affordable Care Act and Recovery Act through Congress.

"Jim has a voice of powerful, powerful moral clarity that's heard loud and clear in the nation's capital, and he always reminds us, reminds everyone on both sides of the aisle that it's about you, family and community," Biden said. 

He continued, "I'm here, heart and soul, with everything I've got to earn the support of the people of South Carolina." 

Biden's strategy relies on him to do well in South Carolina to give him necessary momentum going into Super Tuesday next week. Projecting confidence, Biden believed that if he wins South Carolina with the help of Clyburn and his constituents, there will be no stopping his campaign.

"If you send me out of South Carolina with a victory, there will be no stopping us. We will win the nomination, we will win the presidency and most importantly we'll the eliminate the fear so many have in this country of a second term of Donald Trump," Biden said.  

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Sanders' campaign rejects Bloomberg's help in general election: 'It's a hard no'

CHARLESTON, S.C. — A top adviser to Bernie Sanders said the candidate would reject an offer from Mike Bloomberg to spend heavily on his behalf in the general election if the Vermont senator wins the Democratic Party’s nomination.

Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor currently running against Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primary, has said he would keep his money flowing to help oust President Donald Trump, regardless of whom Democrats nominate.

But Jeff Weaver, Sanders' closest aide, said the Democratic front-runner would not want Bloomberg’s help.

"It’s a hard no," Weaver told NBC News after Tuesday night’s debate. "Bernie has said he's going to fund his presidential campaign with small-dollar contributions and I think we can do that. I think we can raise over a billion dollars in small-dollar contributions."

Read more here.

Fact check: Obama spoke positively about Castro, too, Sanders says

Sanders took heat Tuesday night for recent comments he made about Cuba and Fidel Castro — and defended himself by invoking remarks by former President Barack Obama he says are similar.

"I have opposed authoritarianism all over the world," Sanders said, adding, "What I said is what Barack Obama said in terms of Cuba, that Cuba made progress on education. What Barack Obama said is they made great progress on education and health care, that was Barack Obama."

First, some context: Sanders sparked criticism when, during an appearance on CBS' "60 Minutes" over the weekend, he said, “We're very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but, you know, it's unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

While it's true that the literacy rate in Cuba expanded after Castro seized power, and health care expanded as well, experts told NBC News that Sanders' comments leave out key parts of the nation's history. The island was already in the top tier on both fronts when compared to other Latin American countries before 1959, according to one leading expert, and post-revolution, overall living standards, as measured by gross domestic product, declined. Additionally, Sanders in his "60 Minutes" interview failed to mention that the literacy program was a vehicle for propaganda.

Sanders, defending himself on the debate stage Tuesday night, accurately refers to remarks the former president made at an event in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2016, though Obama doesn't mention the literacy program specifically. Obama, amid a historic thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, was making a broader argument about ignoring the labels of socialist or capitalist theory — "You should just decide what works," he said, before describing a conversation he had with Castro.

"And I said this to President Castro in Cuba. I said, look, you've made great progress in educating young people. Every child in Cuba gets a basic education — that's a huge improvement from where it was. Medical care— the life expectancy of Cubans is equivalent to the United States, despite it being a very poor country, because they have access to health care. That's a huge achievement. They should be congratulated. But you drive around Havana and you say this economy is not working. It looks like it did in the 1950s." 

Who won the Democratic debate in South Carolina?

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Democrats threw everything but the kitchen sink at Bernie Sanders, and if the 10th debate here didn't slow his march to the nomination it's not clear anything will.

Mike Bloomberg told him Russia wants him to be the nominee so he can lose to President Donald Trump. Elizabeth Warren said she'd be a better president than him and took him to task for supporting the Senate filibuster. Joe Biden went after him for voting against gun control and floating a primary challenge against President Barack Obama in 2012. Pete Buttigieg said House Democrats are fleeing his agenda. Amy Klobuchar argued she's the most anti-Sanders candidate on stage.

At one point, Sanders offered a knowing grin.

"I'm hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight. I wonder why?" the front-runner quipped.

Here's how the candidates performed in a debate that repeatedly descended into yelling matches rife with interruptions that captured the tension of the larger contest.

Read more here.

Fact check: Does every study say 'Medicare for All' would save money?

"What every study out there, conservative or progressive, says, 'Medicare for All' will save money," Sanders claimed Tuesday night.

In short, no. 

Many studies do say his Medicare for All proposal would save money — Sanders likes to tout a recent study that says the system would save $450 billion a year — but other studies say it would cost more than the current system, measured as a share of gross domestic product.

Steyer says he has no plan to exit race

Steyer, talking to CBS News in the spin room,  said he doesn't intend to quit the  race any time soon — even though he's polling nationally around just 2 percent — adding that he can stay "as long as I want."

"I can stay along — around as long as I want. I want to be able to show that I can attract that diverse Democratic coalition that we need to pull together in November of 2020," said Steyer, a billionaire who is largely funding his own campaign.

Steyer is polling around 13 percent in South Carolina — third highest among the candidates, behind only Biden and Sanders. But his local appeal hasn't translated nationally; he has starkly lower polling numbers elsewhere and, after three primary contests, zero national delegates.

Pundits have complained that his continuing in the race is contributing to the splintering of the moderate faction within the party — which could help Sanders' campaign.

Fact check: Democrats' claims about coronavirus and Trump

Both Bloomberg and Klobuchar went after Trump for neglecting the institutions that could help the U.S. face the coronavirus threat.

"The president fired the pandemic specialist in this country two years ago. So there's nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing, and he's defunded Centers for Disease Control, CDC, so we don't have the organization we need," Bloomberg said.

Klobuchar said: "He tried to cut back on the CDC. He tried to cut back on the international organization that would coordinate with the rest of the world. He hasn't yet really addressed the nation on this topic."

Is this true? Bloomberg is right on one point — the White House's top pandemic official left his role on the National Security Council abruptly in May 2018, and The Washington Post reported there were no plans to replace him.

And while the president has indeed sought cuts at the CDC, as Klobuchar said, he has not defunded it, as Bloomberg claimed.

Klobuchar is also right when she said the president has not given an address or a major speech about the deadly new virus spreading around the world, although he has tweeted about his administration's response.