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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

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.

Buttigieg hits Sanders again: 'Anyone who disagrees with you be damned'

Buttigieg, speaking to MSNBC in the spin room, once again emphasized the "two different" visions he and Sanders were offering.

He described Sanders' vision as amounting to "anyone who disagrees with you be damned."

And he described his own as a "coalition" that would bring forth "progressive change" and do so "without further dividing the country."

Buttigieg has taken repeated aim at Sanders in recent weeks over his "Medicare for All" plan, and he has aggressively pitched himself — and his so-called "Medicare for All who want it" plan — as best suited to unite the party and the country in November.

Talking to Chris Matthews, he continued his fierce criticism of "Medicare for All."

"I don't think it's consistent with a free society to say this industry" — the private health insurance industry — "cannot exist," he said.

Warren says she's the better progressive in the race because she can bring Dems and GOP together

In her post-debate interview with CBS News, Warren pitched herself as the best candidate in the race and the best progressive — an obvious dig at Sanders, who has won two of the last three contests and the popular vote in the last three. 

She said that her plans — such as anti-corruption measures and Social Security payment increases — are popular with both parties and that she has a clear plan to pay for them, which is a 2-cent wealth tax on the wealthiest Americans. 

"That's how we get elected down-ballot and how we govern," she said.

She noted that she created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and fought against banks, which she said is a sign that she not only can have a plan but also can get it implemented. 

"I have unshakable values, and I have a track record of getting things done," she said. 

Ahead of Super Tuesday, Warren was certain she would carry her home state, Massachusetts, noting that she built a grassroots campaign there to take down an incumbent Republican. 

She added that she does not expect to change her campaign strategy despite disappointing finishes in the previous contests. 

"This is who I am. I am not someone whose campaign has been shaped by a bunch of consultants," she said.

Sanders attacked more than any candidate in any debate yet, except Bloomberg

Sanders felt the heat of the hot seat tonight.

Sanders faced more than 30 attacks on the stage tonight, the second-highest number leveled against a Democratic candidate in any of the debates so far.

The 33 attacks on Sanders were beaten only by the 45-attack battery that Bloomberg received last week. This week, Bloomberg was attacked often but not as often, totaling 17 attacks, almost half of them at the hands of Warren.

See the complete numbers at the NBC News attack tracker.

Sanders talks Cuba comments, dismisses idea that he's 'radical'

Sanders, speaking to CBS News in the spin room, rejected the "radical" label that many of his competitors for the Democratic nomination have slapped him with and defended his praise for the Castro regime in Cuba over its literacy efforts.

"Nothing I say is radical," Sanders said, responding to questions about whether his "Medicare for All" plan would be feasible. "The bottom line is: Do we have the guts to take on the pharmaceutical industry?"

Moments later, he was asked — again — about his recent defense of his positive remarks from the 1980s about some of Fidel Castro's policies.

"Truth is truth," Sanders said. "If someone ... teaches illiterate people to read, you're going to tell me that's a bad thing? It is not." 

He added: "Cuba is an authoritarian country. I have decried authoritarianism."

Sanders has faced criticism from many Democrats, including several members of Florida's congressional delegation whose districts include large populations of Cuban-born residents who escaped the Communist regime.

Sanders was then asked in the spin room how he'd be able to compete in Florida amid that criticism.

"The way we are going to win in Florida and every other state in the country," he said, "is by talking to the issues."