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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

Klobuchar and Biden requested a fact check. We have obliged.

In one back-and-forth, Klobuchar and Biden attacked each other over who wrote which gun control bills — and requested a fact checker take a look.

“I am the author of the 'boyfriend loophole' that says that domestic abusers can’t go out and get an AK47,” Klobuchar said.

“I wrote that law,” Biden interjected.

“You didn’t write that bill. I wrote that bill,” Klobuchar said.

“I did. I wrote the bill the Violence Against Women Act that took out of the hands of people who abused their —” Biden said.

“We’ll have a fact check look at that,” Klobuchar fired back.

“Oh, let’s look at the fact check,” Biden said. “The only thing [was] that the 'boyfriend loophole' was not covered. I couldn’t get that covered. You in fact when you were as a senator tried to get it covered and Mitch McConnell is holding up on his desk right now and we’re going to lose the Violence Against Women Act across the board.” 

As a senator, Biden wrote the Violence Against Women Act, which stopped people who were convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from buying guns. But it only covers certain relationships, like married couples or those who have children with their victim. Klobuchar wrote a bill that would close that loophole by including stalkers or dating partners who aren't already covered.

So while Biden’s off the mark in the beginning, he catches up in the end. He's right to note that the VAWA is stalled in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not acted on three gun control bills passed by the Democratic-controlled House in 2019. Last February, the House passed a law closing the “Charleston loophole,” which allows the sale of a firearm if a background check is not completed within three days. It’s a loophole that allowed Dylann Roof to obtain the weapon he used to murder nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Last March, the House passed a bill that would expand background checks for gun purchases to include buys made at gun shows, online and other private sales.

And in April 2019, the House voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with new language that would close the so-called boyfriend loophole Klobuchar mentioned — a change opposed by the powerful National Rifle Association.

Candidates share their personal mottoes

The candidates were asked to provide their personal mottoes.

Here is what all seven said:

Steyer: "Every day I write a cross on my hand to remind me to tell the truth and do what's right no matter what."

Klobuchar: "Politics is about improving people's lives," she said, quoting her mentor, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone.

Biden: "When you get knocked down, you get up, and everyone's entitled to be treated with dignity."

Sanders: "Everything is impossible until it happens," he said, quoting Nelson Mandela.

Warren: She quoted Matthew 25:40, saying, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to me."

Buttigieg: "If you would be a leader, you must first be a servant," and "We should treat others the way we want to be treated."

Bloomberg: "I've trained for this job for a long time, and when I get it I'm going to do something, not just talk about it."

Biden minds the rules

In a debate with a lot of cross-talk among candidates, Biden noticed that he was the only one minding the time clock.

"Why am I stopping? No one else stops," he said. "My Catholic school training."

Going decade by decade, Buttigieg slams Sanders for Castro comments, pushes focus on future

Reminding viewers once again of Sanders' comments (made in the 1980s) about the Castro regime in Cuba, Buttigieg slammed the Vermont senator for expressing "nostalgia" for revolutionary politics.

"I am not looking forward to a scenario where it comes down to Donald Trump with his nostalgia for the social order of the 1950s and Bernie Sanders with a nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s," Buttigieg said. "This is not about what coups were happening in the 1970s or '80s. This is about the future. This is about 2020.

"We are not going to survive or succeed, and certainly not going to win, by reliving the Cold War," he continued. "And we're not going to win these critical, critical House and Senate races if people in those races have to explain why the nominee of the Democratic Party is telling people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime."

Three's a party, seven's a crowd

We don't quite have as many people as the early debates did, but seven candidates still feels like a lot. 

Many of the candidates clearly feel they haven't gotten enough time and are firing back at the moderators when told they're out of time. And other candidates can seem to disappear for particular chunks of time.

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

Steyer hits Trump, Republicans over Russian interference

Steyer had his strongest moment in the debate so far when he attacked Russia for interfering in the 2016 election — which was confirmed by 17 American intelligence agencies — and its purported interference this year. He also excoriated Trump and Republicans in Congress for not standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

He also gave a nod to his Need to Impeach campaign, which he started before he ran for president. 

"There was a hostile, foreign attack on our election last time, and the president sided with the hostile foreign power. That's why I started Need to Impeach. That's what we have to do. We have to oppose a president who sides with a hostile foreign power that commits cyberwarfare against the United States of America," Steyer said.

"That's where we are. Where are all these patriotic Republicans who wave the flag but, when we're actually under attack, they side with our enemies? It's outrageous. That's why he should have been impeached. They covered it up, and I was years before these people. There's something wrong here. We're under attack, and they're not doing a darn thing about it."

Sanders doesn’t commit when asked whether he would move embassy in Israel

Asked whether he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv after the Trump administration moved it to Jerusalem in May 2018, Sanders, who is Jewish, said it is "something we would take into consideration," but he didn't provide much more of an answer past that.

Trump's decision to move the embassy delighted the Israeli government but angered Palestinians and brought concerns that it could further destabilize a fraught region, and it has been a point of contention since. 

Many are curious where Sanders would land. The progressive Vermont senator has received much criticism for his stance on Israel, and the recent fight he has picked with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is considered the direct lobbying arm of the Israeli government, has only made that intrigue pick up steam. 

Sanders, who has argued that the U.S. must also be supportive of a Palestinian state, said AIPAC is a platform for "leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights." 

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In a feisty debate, Bloomberg picks two particular targets

Bloomberg has spent the first 90 minutes of tonight's debate retaliating against Sanders and Warren, the two who have lobbed the most attacks toward him.

Mostly, Bloomberg's approach tonight has revolved around attacking Trump and saying he has what it takes to beat the president.

The only other candidate Bloomberg has attacked is Biden, who has yet to target Bloomberg. Last week, Biden attacked Bloomberg 12 times, focusing on his contentious stop-and-frisk policy when he was mayor of New York and his non-disclosure agreements with women who have worked for him.

Get the latest with the NBC News debate attack tracker.

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"

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.