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Rivals pile on Bernie Sanders in South Carolina debate

The Democratic faceoff in Charleston comes just days ahead of the state's primary and Super Tuesday on March 3.
Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.Patrick Semansky / AP

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Bernie Sanders is winning the Democratic presidential primary race — and that means he won some time as the focus of attacks at Tuesday night's debate here.

Nearly every other major candidate took a swing at Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, within the first minutes of the faceoff, hitting him on everything from guns to socialism. Even his progressive ally Elizabeth Warren got in on the pile-on.

"I'm hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight. I wonder why?" Sanders said.

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Sanders performed well in all three of the first primary states and has been climbing here ahead of Saturday's primary, which comes just days before Super Tuesday.

"Bernie and I agree with a lot of things, but I think I would be a better president than Bernie," said Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, arguing that she could be more effective and suggesting that Sanders and his supporters are too rigid to get much done.

She pointed to "Medicare for All," which they both support, but she said her plan is more detailed. "I dug in and did the work, and then Bernie's team trashed me for it," she said.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, noted that "right now we're within walking distance of Mother Emanuel AME Church," where a white supremacist shot and killed nine black congregants in 2015.

"Bernie voted five times against the Brady bill and wanted a waiting period of 12 hours," Biden said. "In addition, he wanted to primary Barack Obama." The Brady bill is the 27-year-old federal law requiring waiting periods and background checks for people seeking to buy handguns.

"'Progressive' is about getting things done, and that's what I've done," Biden said. "Bernie hasn't passed much of anything."

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, meanwhile, accused Sanders of being supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin, referring to reports that the Russian government is boosting Sanders in the Democratic presidential contest.

Sanders rejected that, saying that as president, he would make sure that Putin never interfered in another American election.

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, jumped into that issue, arguing that Moscow wants chaos and is trying to game the Democratic Party by boosting Sanders.

"Imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump," Buttigieg said.

Even Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who returned to the debate stage Tuesday by investing in South Carolina and climbing in the polls, got in on the fight.

"Bernie Sanders' analysis is right," Steyer said before adding that Sanders' solutions were wrong.

"I don't think a government takeover of the economy is good," Sanders said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said, "It matters if you can actually get things done."

"I like Bernie ... but I don't think this is the best person to lead the ticket," she said.

Later, Sanders took on multiple candidates at once over his past comments on Cuba, for which he's been under fire in recent days by critics who say he was too apologetic of the Castro regime.

"He literally thinks he can go over and bring a hot dish to the dictator next door and he thinks everything is going to be fine," Klobuchar said.

Sanders defended himself by suggesting a double-standard on left-wing regimes, arguing American allies like Saudi Arabia have plenty of their own problems on human rights, and noting that former President Barack Obama loosened sanctions on Cuba.

"Of course you have a dictatorship in Cuba," Sanders said. “What I said is what Barack Obama said in terms of Cuba — that Cuba made progress on education."