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

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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

Buttigieg refers to the rural hospital crisis

Buttigieg pointed out that states that haven't expanded Medicaid have seen higher rates of hospital closings, and he noted that those states have larger minority populations that then cannot get health care coverage. That's true, according to an Urban Institute accounting, and an outsize percentage of communities of colors in those states carry medical debt that is now in collections. 

The medical debt is incurred at hospitals, which people go to in emergencies when facing dire health crises. When they don't have insurance coverage to pay for their treatment, they take on that debt, injuring their credit and economic situations long term. It also means poor rural hospitals don't receive reimbursement for treating those patients.

By refusing the Medicaid expansion that states were offered through the Affordable Care Act, the South Carolina government has rejected more than $10.5 billion since 2014, which would provide health care coverage to nearly 200,000 low-income people — many of whom are members of minority groups.

The decisions of the 15 states that have declined expansion have contributed to a rural hospital crisis in which 166 infirmaries have closed nationwide since 2005 — four alone in South Carolina — according to the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program. The crisis peaked in 2019 with the closings of 19 facilities in the U.S., and four more have shut their doors this year.

Democratic candidates slam 'great genius' Trump for botching coronavirus response

Democratic presidential candidates criticized President Donald Trump's response to the coronavirus outbreak during their debate Tuesday night, blasting budget cuts his administration has made to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and his thrashing of the U.S.'s international relationships.

"This president has not invested like he should have in his budget. He tried to cut back on the CDC. He tried to cut back on the international organizations that would coordinate with the rest of the world. He hasn't yet really addressed the nation on this topic," Amy Klobuchar said. "I would do all of that."

The question about the outbreak gave Klobuchar a chance to issue a public warning: "This is so serious I'm not going to give my website. I'm going to give the CDC's website, which is CDC.gov."

Asked how he would deal with the crisis, Biden touted his experience fighting Ebola when he was vice president and vowed to restore funding and to push China: "You have to be open. You have to be clear. We have to know what's going on."

Sanders took the opportunity to go after Trump but also used it to pivot to other issues that require international coordination, climate change in particular.

Read the full story here.

Fact check: Biden attacks Sanders' record on guns

Biden hammered Sanders over his record on guns multiple times Tuesday night, while Sanders defended himself as a reliable supporter of gun control. 

"Walking distance from here is Mother Emanuel church," Biden said. "Nine people shot dead by a white supremacist. Bernie voted five times against the Brady bill and wanted a waiting period — no, let me finish — a waiting period of 12 hours."

It's true that Sanders has had a voting record that many gun control advocates consider checkered, and he has only more recently aligned with the Democratic Party on certain gun control issues. And he did vote against multiple iterations of the Brady bill, which required waiting periods for people buying guns — five times in total, according to PolitiFact

Biden also hit Sanders for his 2005 vote to shield gun manufacturers and dealers from legal liabilities, which Sanders was asked about by a moderator. 

"I have cast thousands of votes, including bad votes. That was a bad vote," Sanders said.

He went on to defend his record: "I have today a D-minus voting record from the NRA. Thirty years ago, I likely lost a race for the one seat for Congress in Vermont because 30 years ago, I opposed — I supported a ban on assault weapons."

While Sanders is right that his most recent rating from the National Rifle Association is a D-minus and that he did lose his 1988 congressional race, multiple outlets have said the reason he lost isn't so clear cut

Bloomberg refers to coronavirus

Bloomberg is the first candidate to bring up the ongoing public health issue around the new coronavirus, about which the CDC sounded alarms earlier Tuesday.

He hit Trump for letting CDC funding lapse related to fighting global pandemics.

But that wasn't enough for Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. 

Who gets to talk about race?

Debate moderators asked some of the candidates to state their positions on race issues but left out Klobuchar, even though she has been struggling to get support from voters of color and has faced criticism on race (related to her record as a prosecutor).

Just after Steyer discussed reparations, Klobuchar, who said the country needs to elect a candidate from the Midwest, was allowed to shift to a question on rural America.

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Poverty, particularly among children, remains high

Klobuchar, a senator from Minnesota who has described herself as a champion for often forgotten parts of America, made one of the debate's only references to rural and child poverty Tuesday night.

In South Carolina, a state with many rural communities, about 15 percent of the population lives in poverty, compared to about 12 percent of people nationwide, according to census data. But poverty is an even more pronounced experience for children. While about 16 percent of all children in the United States live in poverty, almost 23 percent of children in South Carolina do so, according to a 2019 Children’s Defense Fund analysis of census data.

Nobody puts Biden in a corner

After Biden gave a forceful (and detailed) answer about how to directly address specific issues affecting black Americans, he criticized the moderators for cutting him off.

"I'm not going to be quiet anymore, OK?" he said. 

Biden was quiet during the initial moments of the debate, but as it went on it, he became sharper and more aggressive in his answers. 

Know who's not making his presence felt tonight?

President Donald Trump, a frequent target at previous debates, has been attacked by candidates on the debate stage four times in the first hour tonight. At this rate, the debate will tally the fewest attacks on Trump of any debate so far. 

ANALYSIS: Ending the filibuster is a good news, bad news proposition

For Democrats, the good news about killing the filibuster is that it would make it easier to pass their agenda.

The bad news — as they might be able to have gleaned from the Trump administration — is that it would make it easier for Republicans to repeal whatever they pass in the future.

For a party that has prided itself on progressive legislating — from Social Security and Medicare to civil rights — the prospects of turning back the clock with a 51-seat Republican majority in the future might seem like a risk.

But then again, without it, two anti-abortion bills would have passed the Senate today.

The allure of jamming a particular Democratic president's plans through the Senate is usually stronger for that president than for the members of the Senate — even from his or her party — who plan to remain in their jobs longer than four or eight years.

The president doesn't have a vote on lowering or eliminating the filibuster threshold. The senators who do aren't likely to support it.

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Bloomberg eager to talk about anti-gun push

During the discussion about guns, Bloomberg eagerly raised his hand and shut down Buttigieg. He eagerly reminded the audience that he has funded an organization with 6 million people who work on anti-gun legislation called Moms Demand Action.

Sanders, Bloomberg getting the brunt of it

The Vermont senator has fielded 23 attacks in the first 45 minutes tonight. That's one more than the number of times he was targeted all night in last week's Nevada debate.

Onstage, Sanders' competitors have alluded to his "Medicare for All" plan and its lack of a price tag, and they have labeled him the most polarizing candidate among them.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg has also taken hits, albeit in Sanders' shadow. The former mayor of New York has fielded 13 attacks so far tonight, many of them from Warren regarding his non-disclosure agreements with women who have worked for him.

Follow the latest play-by-play with our debate attack tracker.