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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

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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

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."

In religious S.C., candidates find personal mottoes and motivation in Scripture

In a Pew Research Center religious landscape poll, 78 percent of South Carolina adults described themselves as Christians. Another 35 percent told researchers they participate in prayer, scriptural study or other religious education at least once a week.

So, many South Carolina voters likely recognized the litany of scriptural references and allusions offered up when candidates were asked during Tuesday night's debate about their personal mottoes.

Buttigieg managed three mentions, including allusions to Scripture directing those who seek to lead to serve, a reference to a popular Christian song, "Order My Steps In Your Word, Dear Lord," and a modern English interpretation of the well-known Golden Rule.

"When I think about everything at stake, from racial and economic justice to our stewardship of the climate to the need to heal the sick and the need to heal this country, I seek for those teachings to order my steps as I go through this campaign and as I go through life," Buttigieg said.

Warren offered a citation of a verse in Matthew 25:40 — "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" — as a part of her personal motto. And Steyer told viewers that he draws a Jerusalem cross on his hand daily to remind himself to "tell the truth and do what's right, no matter what."

Klobuchar talks struggles with black voters and appeal in Middle America

Klobuchar, speaking to CBS News in the so-called spin room following Tuesday’s chaotic debate, addressed one of her biggest weaknesses — poor polling among African American voters — and one of her strengths — her connection to Middle America.

An NBC News/Marist College poll out Monday showed that less than 3 percent of black voters in South Carolina support Klobuchar. She said, "I have to earn that support, and I know that."

Later in the interview, she explained why she felt she had broad appeal in parts of the country where "Medicare for All" — Sanders' signature policy — isn't supported.

"Those candidates are not for Medicare for All," she said, referring to Democratic House candidates who won their races in 2018 in swing districts. "They are in the kind of districts I win routinely."

Asked how to put together the "right coalition," she talked about focusing on economic prosperity.

"You do it by focusing on economic prosperity and shared prosperity for everyone," she said.

Biden defiant: 'I will win South Carolina'

Moments after the debate, Biden said he thought he had a strong debate performance in an interview with CBS: "I said what I had to say."

He also said he will win the South Carolina primary Saturday, even if it's a narrow victory, because of his strong support from black voters, a group that is a core constituency of the Democratic Party.

"I'm going to win," he said. "One point is enough, but I think I'm going to win by a lot more than that." 

He added that the first two contests, which he performed poorly in — in Iowa and New Hampshire — did not "represent what America looks like." 

He went after Sanders, saying that he will not bring out enough people — such as independents and "mainstream Democrats" — and that people don't want the "revolution" the senator from Vermont is planning. 

"People want progress, not go back," he said. 

He also said that Sanders has not been vetted enough and that Americans are not deeply familiar with his record, particularly his gun votes.

Fact check: Did Bloomberg release his tax returns for 12 years in a row?

"We had our tax returns out 12 years in a row," Bloomberg said during the debate while pledging the same radical transparency as president.

That's not exactly true. During his three terms as mayor of New York, Bloomberg made highly redacted, vague versions of his tax documents available to reporters for a couple of hours each year. In fact, this reporter — more than a decade ago — was one of the many who reviewed those documents and tried to glean details from the limited information provided.