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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.

Download the NBC News app for full politics coverage.

Read our debate coverage:

Fact check: Bloomberg claims stop-and-frisk 'got out control,' so he cut it back

Bloomberg again claimed that he reined in the use of stop-and-frisk after it got "out of control" when he was mayor of New York.

"We let it get out of control, and when I realized that, I cut it back by 95 percent, and I've apologized and asked for forgiveness," he said. 

This is still a false representation. Bloomberg championed and expanded the stop-and-frisk policing practice — the strategy that gave police the authority to detain people suspected of committing a crime, which led to a practice of stopping mostly black and Hispanic men — during his three terms of mayor.

The practice was scaled back significantly thanks to a 2013 court order declaring the policy unconstitutional, not Bloomberg's change of heart.

Analysis: A train wreck

So far, the debate is a train wreck for Democrats — candidates slinging rocks at one another and moderators having lost any or all control.

Most of the candidates have accused Sanders, the front-runner, of promoting an agenda that would lose the election and destroy their party up and down the ballot.

Several said Bloomberg's "stop and frisk" policy when he was mayor of New York was "racist."

Bloomberg himself almost said he "bought" the Democratic Congress before he corrected himself and said he "got" the Democratic Congress. Warren pointed to Bloomberg's contributions to Republican lawmakers.

They all yelled to be heard.

No one looked good in the first half-hour.

Image:
Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Amy Klobuchar in the Democratic presidential primary debate on Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C.Patrick Semansky / AP

Biden stays quiet, then gets mad

Biden, the former frontrunner, was somewhat absent during the first moments of the debate. But came out strong when he told the other candidate to shut up so he could speak. He hit Steyer over his support of private prisons and shut down Sanders when he tried to chime in, which earned his cheers from the debate hall. 

A strong performance ahead of the primary could help him and, before now, he had only attacked Sanders over guns and forcefully declared that he will win the South Carolina primary, which his campaign has dubbed his firewall. 

In the Nevada debate, Biden had a strong performance and came in second place in the Nevada caucuses. In South Carolina, his black support has been chipped away at by other candidates. If he sits back and lets the others attack will it allow him to go into the primary without many bruises or will it make him look feeble to voters here who wants a fighter against Trump? We’ll see. 

Health care reruns

This is the 10th Democratic debate, and the candidates are arguing over the math of health care plans ... again. Feels like the same exchange could have happened in the first debate — and it probably did. But this is South Carolina, where health care is a critical issue for the electorate.

Biden and the black vote. It’s make or break.

Asked about his sliding polling numbers with black voters, Biden vowed to win South Carolina.

“I’ve worked like the devil to earn the vote in the African American community,” Biden said. “I intend to win South Carolina and I will win the African American vote here in South Carolina.”

Biden, once considered the front-runner in the Democratic presidential primary race, has seen his standing slide as overwhelmingly white electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire handed more votes to candidates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar. In Nevada, Sanderssuccess with Latino voters has been credited with securing a victory in that state’s caucus last week. 

Biden’s campaign needs both the narrative and fundraising boost that could come with a victory in South Carolina. And, due to the state’s demographics, the key to such a victory could lie with black voters.

Warren rips into Bloomberg — again

Warren used her first substantial speaking time at Tuesday night’s debate to slam Bloomberg, saying that his past support of Republicans amounts to being the “riskiest candidate” on the stage and a candidate unworthy of Democratic voters’ trust.

“Who funded Lindsey Graham’s campaign for re-election last time? It was Mayor Bloomberg. And that’s not the only right-wing senators he has funded,” Bloomberg said. 

She also referred to his backing of Scott Brown, Warren’s competition in the 2012 Senate election.

“It didn’t work, but he tried hard,” she said.

“I don't care how much money Mayor Bloomberg has. The core of the Democratic Party will never trust him. He has not earned their trust,” Warren said. “He is the riskiest candidate on this stage.”

Warren also opened her speaking time in last week’s debate in Las Vegas with a scorching attack on Bloomberg.

Bloomberg parries on stop-and-frisk

Bloomberg was once again asked about stop-and-frisk, a policy that overwhelmingly targeted minorities and was ended by a federal judge. He apologized for the policy, but pivoted to ones that have made New York City safer. 

Buttigieg criticized Bloomberg and said the policy was racist. He said that South Bend, Indiana, has had its own issues with race and that it’s important to be more conscious about racial inequality. 

Bloomberg tried to atone, saying he “knows that my success would have been a lot harder to achieve” if he were black. 

Fact check: Is half of America living paycheck to paycheck?

Sanders argued that the economy wasn't working for working people Tuesday, claiming that “real wage increases” were less than 1 percent for the average worker and that “half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck.” Is he right?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, real average hourly earnings increased 0.6 percent for the year that ended in 2019. Meanwhile, it's true that several studies have found that roughly half of all Americans live paycheck to paycheck — here’s one from this year and another from last year.

Buttigieg says Russia wants ‘chaos’ — experts say he’s right

Buttigieg jumped in on Bloomberg bringing up claims that Russia and Putin are backing Sanders. Buttigieg says Russia doesn’t have a party, it wants “chaos.”

This is also what many national security experts say. 

“The only thing we should assume to know for sure is that Putin and the Kremlin, with a singular influence campaign employed headed into the 2016 election, have continued to sow discord in America ever since and have achieved a strategic victory against the U.S. that continues to provide returns today,” wrote Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent and current MSNBC contributor.

Amy Klobuchar gets onto the board after more than 15 minutes.

Warren goes straight after Sanders

Warren, after a strong debate performance in Nevada last week attacking Bloomberg, went straight for Sanders, the new front-runner, saying she is the better progressive because she can actually get her agenda enacted. 

She said the party needs “someone who digs into the details," and while Sanders' people trashed her plans, his plans do not have details or a blueprint to get enacted.

Warren's going after Sanders is important because her campaign has been struggling and is often viewed as the alternative to Sanders but has not garnered the same momentum as his campaign. 

Early on, Bernie Sanders is the focus

The start of this debate couldn't have looked more different for Mike Bloomberg.

Bloomberg, who was attacked 10 times in the first 10 minutes of last week's debate, was attacked only once in the first 10 minutes tonight.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, was attacked seven times in that time, the most of any candidate on the stage and close to half of the 15 attacks doled out early on.

Follow the latest numbers with our South Carolina debate attack tracker.

Debate begins with economy question to Sanders — but quickly derails into Russia discussion

The debate opened with a question on the economy to Sanders — but his response (as well as an ensuing response from Bloomberg) prompted the topic to quickly shift to Russian interference in elections. 

After being asked about why voters should support him, when the economy is growing under President Donald Trump, Sanders used his reply to take a shot at Bloomberg.

The economy, Sanders said, is only doing well “for Mr. Bloomberg” and “other billionaires” but that “things aren’t so good” for ordinary Americans.

Bloomberg received an immediate opportunity to respond, saying that “I think that Donald Trump thinks it would be better if he were president.”

“That’s why Russia is helping you, so you lose to him,” Bloomberg said. The line was a reference to reports that he had been briefed about efforts by the Kremlin to try to to help his presidential campaign as part of an effort to interfere with the Democratic primary and the 2020 election.

We apologize, this video has expired.

Yang's watching — and tweeting — tonight

Buttigieg gets endorsement of S.C.'s largest paper

On Tuesday, South Carolina’s largest newspaper, The State, endorsed Buttigieg. The Columbia newspaper’s endorsement went to Buttigieg despite his lagging performance with black voters, the majority of the state’s Democratic voters.

The paper’s editorial board described Buttigieg as the type of “energetic” and “disciplined” candidate with a “powerful yet pragmatic vision” needed to challenge Trump in November.

“The Democrats need a nominee who seeks to bring Americans together based on broad common ground — and not divide them along narrow interests,” the paper’s editorial board wrote. “Among the Democratic presidential candidates, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the best person to meet these challenges.”

Black voters make up more than 60 percent of South Carolina’s Democratic voters and about 30 percent of all registered voters in the state, according to census estimates from November 2018. The paper’s editorial board described developing support among black voters as Buttigieg’s “biggest challenge” and suggested that readers should evaluate Buttigieg in this area by effort, rather than outcome.

“Too often Buttigieg’s critics have ignored his substantive efforts to earn the support of black voters, and Buttigieg’s appeals to African Americans should be judged by this standard: Is his outreach genuine, and is it being undertaken in good faith?” the editorial board wrote. “We believe that it is.”

Gabby Giffords wants 'serious debate on gun violence'

Sanders 'looking forward' to 'enthusiastic support' from opponents on stage

The scene outside the debate venue

'Confessions' from South Carolina

What do South Carolinians have to say about the candidates?

On NBC News' Election Confessions, people from across the United States have shared more than 60,000 musings about the candidates, the country and its condition. Here are a few from what people in South Carolina have written.

A confession about Tom Steyer: "Has implemented great ideas.Built up a business from zero. Could repair our country. Moderate policies. Public face needs polish."
A confession about Bernie Sanders: "I never felt the burn. He's not a Dem, quit fooling yourselves"

Read the rest of the election confessions here.

Sanders' comments leave out crucial parts of Cuba's history, Cuban Americans, scholars say

Carmen Peláez, a Cuban American playwright, filmmaker and active Democrat, said she was “gobsmacked” when she heard presidential candidate Bernie Sanders praise Cuba’s education and health care system during a "60 Minutes" interview Sunday night.

“I was amazed he was arrogant enough to equivocate on behalf of a Communist revolution, considering he needs Florida to win,” said Peláez, whose parents fled Cuba in the 1960s. “Today, I know I can’t vote for Sanders."

Sanders’ comments on Cuba have created uproar and outrage in Florida, one of the most important battleground states in the country. Many Cubans in the United States say Sanders’ portrayal of 1960s Cuba does not paint the entire picture of what was really unfolding in the country at the time.

During the "60 Minutes" interview, Sanders defended comments he made in 1985 saying Cubans did not join the U.S. in overthrowing Castro during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion because he educated kids, gave them health care, and “totally transformed society.” At a CNN town hall Monday night, Sanders was asked if he wanted to respond to the criticism, but he doubled down on his previous comments.

Read the full story here.

After unloading on Sanders, Hillary Clinton walks back not committing to him as nominee

Hillary Clinton on Tuesday night walked back scathing comments in which she would not commit to backing Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., as the Democratic presidential nominee and said "nobody likes him."

"He was in Congress for years," Clinton says in the soon-to-be-released four-part Hulu documentary "Hillary," The Hollywood Reporter said in a report on Tuesday. "He had one senator support him. Nobody likes him. Nobody wants to work with him. He got nothing done. He was a career politician. It's all just baloney, and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it."

Asked by the publication in an interview released Tuesday whether her assessment still stands, Clinton said, "Yes, it does." And she would not commit to endorsing Sanders, who backed her as the Democratic nominee following the 2016 primaries, if he becomes the Democratic nominee.

But Tuesday evening, Clinton amended her comments. Read what she said here.

Bloomberg says he's shown he can beat Trump

Bloomberg has a plan to turn around his debate fortunes: hammer Bernie Sanders

Billionaire ex-New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has a plan to improve his performance after what was widely panned as a subpar showing during last week's Democratic primary debate. The strategy: make Tuesday's contest all about Bernie Sanders.

A top Bloomberg campaign official who spoke with NBC News said the debate "is definitely going to be about Bernie Sanders" after the Democratic frontrunner scored a commanding victory in Nevada and has skyrocketed ahead of the rest of the field in recent national polling.

"It's everyone's last opportunity to really hold him accountable and really challenge his record," the aide said of the last debate before the pivotal Super Tuesday contest. "And so we have to take on the front-runner on that stage. And that's Bernie."

Read how Bloomberg plans to target Sanders at the debate.

Warren finally took on Sanders, but it may be too late

Elizabeth Warren's longstanding truce with Bernie Sanders came apart in the days before the Nevada caucuses. But the push came too late, with her campaign now on life-support after disappointing finishes in the first three states to vote.

Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, won a dominant victory in Nevada on Saturday, with Warren coming in fourth after she spent the preceding week throwing caution to the wind, for the first time making an explicit case for why Sanders should not be the Democratic presidential nominee.

She took him to task for a lack of transparency on his health records, for the ugly behavior of some of his supporters, for refusing to call for abolishing the Senate filibuster, and for his campaign's negativity toward others on "Medicare for All." She even criticized him by name after months of contrasts that were too subtle to make an impression on many voters.

Some Democrats wonder why she waited so long.

Read the full story.

Six reasons why Bernie Sanders became the Democratic front-runner

Our new NBC News/Marist poll of South Carolina captures all of the different ingredients that could result in Bernie Sanders wrapping up the Democratic nomination in just a month.

One, you have the winner of Iowa and close second-place finisher of New Hampshire (Pete Buttigieg) sitting at just 4 percent among likely African-American Democratic primary voters. Call it the Reverse Obama — the Iowa winner unable to play in the South and with African American voters.

Two, you have the slight Democratic leader in South Carolina (Joe Biden) at just 27 percent among all likely South Carolina Democratic primary voters after his fourth place in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire — much lower than Hillary Clinton’s 74 percent that carried this state in 2016.

Three, you have one billionaire without a single delegate so far (Tom Steyer) at 15 percent and peeling away support from Biden — after spending some $20 million over the South Carolina airwaves.

Read the reasons why Sanders leads.

Klobuchar's new delegate strategy focuses on going smaller

With the South Carolina primary just five days away, Amy Klobuchar is taking her presidential campaign to states that won't vote for at least another week.

And while other candidates are working to shore up support ahead of Super Tuesday on March 3 by making stops in bigger states with large delegate hauls, like California and Texas, Klobuchar's campaign has made a different calculation to try to stay viable — go small.

Over 36 hours early this week, Klobuchar held public events in her home state, Minnesota, where she's leading in polls, North Dakota (which doesn't caucus until March 10) and in the additional Super Tuesday states of Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Read more about the senator's strategy.

Warren's 'angry' — and she owns it

Some candidates do better than the polls and others worse. We break it down.

Pre-election polls are more important this primary election cycle than ever before.

Last week, Michael Bloomberg was given a place on the debate stage in Las Vegas because of his rising support in pre-election polls. Polls provide more than just interesting talking points — they can have direct consequences for candidates' futures.

With the first three Democratic Party contests of the season behind us, it's worth looking at how well pre-election polls have done so far at predicting candidates' support on Election Day.

Read the full story.

NBC News poll: Biden holds narrow lead over Sanders in South Carolina

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are locked in a tight contest in South Carolina, according to a new NBC News/Marist poll ahead of the state’s Feb. 29 Democratic primary.

Biden gets the support of 27 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in South Carolina, while Sanders gets 23 percent — well within the poll’s margin of error of plus-minus 6 percentage points.

They’re followed by Tom Steyer at 15 percent, Pete Buttigieg at 9 percent, Elizabeth Warren at 8 percent and Amy Klobuchar at 5 percent.

Read the full results.

Bloomberg surrogates preview debate tactics against Sanders

Hours ahead of the Democratic debate in South Carolina, surrogates for former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg held a press conference targeting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and the need for him to be “vetted” now that he’s a “front-runner.”

Rep. Greg Meeks, D-N.Y., Columbia, S.C. Mayor Steve Benjamin, Augusta, Ga. Mayor Hardie Davis, former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and former Flint, Mich. Mayor Karen Weaver — all elected officials of color — slammed Sanders for his record, particularly on gun control.

“We need a candidate who's fully vetted that can go on to defeat Donald Trump. We don't believe that Senator Sanders has passed this test,” said Benjamin.

All of the speakers at the press conference hit Sanders’ multiple votes against the Brady bill, legislation which required a waiting period for gun purchases and background checks.

Joe Biden, who's looking to come out strong in the upcoming South Carolina primary after disappointing early finishes, also hit Sanders on the issue.

Read more here.

How Elizabeth Warren is surviving the campaign trail

Elizabeth Warren has back-burnered the unity pitch after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire in favor of hammering Mike Bloomberg at the last debate in Las Vegas, which earned rave reviews and an influx of campaign cash but didn't lead to a win in Nevada.

Warren will have another shot at Bloomberg in Tuesday's debate in Charleston, South Carolina, but she was never expected to do particularly well in the state's primary on Saturday, although she can hope for better on Super Tuesday, March 3.

Warren will need a lot more help to regain a clear path to the nomination, and despite the outreach, has received the endorsement of only one former candidate, Julián Castro; Sanders, in contrast, has endorsements from two ex-2020 contenders (New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Marianne Williamson), as does former Vice President Joe Biden (Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts).

But she takes joy in little moments, like when people on her staff noticed that a recently hired former aide to Kamala Harris still had a "Kamala" sticker on the back of her phone. "Someone laughed and said, 'You're supposed to replace that with a Warren sticker.' And my view was, no, it's OK. It is a part of the energy that they bring to our team," Warren said.

Read more about Warren's life on the trail here.

How previous Dems won South Carolina and the nomination

As 2020 candidates prepare for the South Carolina Democratic primary Saturday, the focus is on black voters, a growing base for the party in the Palmetto State and a key voting bloc for eventual party nominees in past elections. The demographic makes up about two-thirds of the state's Democratic electorate. 

Every Democratic winner in South Carolina’s primary since 1992 has ultimately become the party’s nominee except for John Edwards. Though Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders leads the 2020 field in delegates after first and second place finishes in multiple early states, he'll likely need to overcome his past challenges in South Carolina to clear his path to the nomination.

Read more here.

Missed the last debate? Here's what you need to know

If you didn't catch last week's Democratic debate in Nevada, here's what you missed:

Mike Bloomberg became a piñata, and Elizabeth Warren resurrected her feisty side. The Democratic candidates formed a circular firing squad Wednesday night, with arrows flying in all directions and fights breaking out among a seemingly infinite permutation of candidates on matters from health care policy to lewd comments about women.

Here's a look at who was the most aggressive, who took the toughest punches and who missed their marks over the course of the debate, which was hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, Telemundo and The Nevada Independent.

Read who won and lost the debate here or check out full debate coverage here.

Biden clinches support from all House Dems from North Carolina

In the race to Super Tuesday, former Vice President Joe Biden has an advantage at least when it comes down to congressional endorsements across the 14 states voting next week. On Tuesday, Biden clinched all three Democratic House members from North Carolina when Rep. David Price joined fellow Reps. G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams. 

And that endorsement comes as Biden tries to indicate he has the best chance to stop Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary contest. 

Biden has a total of 48 congressional endorsers from both the House and the Senate, according to NBC News’ count, including 20 from Super Tuesday states alone, making him the most endorsed Democratic presidential candidate by members of Congress. NBC News has also learned that South Carolina heavyweight House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn is expected to endorse Biden on Wednesday, bringing his total count of congressional endorsers to 49.

Read more here.

Biden gains momentum, key South Carolina endorsement

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Former Vice President Joe Biden will finish second in the Nevada Democratic presidential caucuses, NBC News projected Sunday night, and will likely earn seven national convention delegates.

The second-place finish, added to the endorsement of South Carolina's top Democrat, Rep. Jim Clyburn — which will come Wednesday, NBC News has learned — will give Biden momentum heading into this week's South Carolina primary.

Official backing from Clyburn, colloquially known as the "South Carolina Kingmaker" for his heavy influence in the state's Democratic politics, could help cement what Biden has predicted would be a first-place finish in South Carolina. Clyburn, who as majority whip is the third-ranking Democrat in the House, will formally endorse Biden ahead of the primary at an event Wednesday, according to two people with firsthand knowledge.

He is the highest-ranking person in House leadership to have backed Biden's candidacy to date.

Read more here.

Unstoppable? Bernie Sanders heads into South Carolina stronger than ever

Bernie Sanders is heading to South Carolina, the state that broke him in 2016, stronger than ever after a razor-thin second-place finish in Iowa and wins in New Hampshire and Nevada.

"I just think there's one big, huge, screaming story here tonight, and that is that there is a front-runner in the 2020 Democratic presidential race," veteran Democratic strategist James Carville, a vocal critic of Sanders, said on MSNBC. "We're in a whole new ballgame here, and ... some of these candidates are going to have to make really hard decisions about who stays in and who gets out and where we go from here."

But the heat will be on like never before for Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who describes himself as a democratic socialist, as his doubters and detractors scramble to try to stop him and the race's former front-runner, Joe Biden, tries to reclaim that position with a second-place showing in Nevada and a promise to win South Carolina.

"We're alive, we're coming back, and we're going to win," Biden told supporters at a union hall in Las Vegas. "I ain't a socialist. I ain't a plutocrat. I'm a Democrat — and proud of it."

Read more here.

5 things to watch on Tuesday night: Will Biden's firewall hold?

Six days after former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg faced a less-than-warm welcome from rivals during his first time on the debate stage in Las Vegas, there's a new target on their minds: Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator crushed his nearest rival by more than 25 points in Nevada and demonstrated his broad appeal in the party.

Joe Biden, who came second in the Silver State, has to prove his strength in South Carolina or it could all be over for him. It's the first majority-black electorate on the calendar, and every Democratic presidential nominee since 1992 has won African-American voters. So far, Biden has been their preferred candidate, but his support has shrunk after poor showings in early states.

And Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, two favorites of white college graduates, have yet to prove they can win black or Latino voters. They loom large in South Carolina on Saturday and the 14 states that will vote three days later on Super Tuesday, when about a third of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention will be awarded.

Here are five things to watch in the last debate before South Carolina and Super Tuesday.

Everything you need to know about the South Carolina debate

The Democratic presidential candidates will debate for the second time in a week Tuesday in South Carolina, where Mike Bloomberg will try to rebound from his widely panned debate debut in Las Vegas.

The former New York City mayor won't be the only billionaire on the stage — Tom Steyer, who didn't qualify for the Nevada debate, hit the polling benchmark Sunday to make the stage in Charleston.

The debate is the 10th of the presidential primary cycle and the last ahead of Saturday's primary vote in the Palmetto State. It's also the final debate before Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states and one U.S. territory will turn out to vote.

Here's what you need to know.