CHARLESTON, S.C. — Democrats threw everything they had 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 was the most anti-Sanders candidate on the stage.
At one point, Sanders offered a knowing grin.
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"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.
Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, finally did Tuesday what she has been reluctant to do throughout the campaign: make an explicit case for why she'd be a better president than Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont. She said that they share progressive goals but that she knows how to be "effective." She said she has a track record of building coalitions, such as proposing and championing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She took Sanders to task for refusing to call for an end to the Senate filibuster, without naming him, and said the filibuster would give the gun industry and oil companies a "veto" over legislation.
Yet the caution Warren applied to knocking Sanders marked a stark contrast to the fiery passion with which she attacked Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, throughout the debate, including for his past support of Republican senators like Scott Brown, whom she defeated in 2012.
Warren offered up some humility when asked about the biggest misconception of her: "I never was supposed to be on a stage like this."
The former vice president was at his most passionate when he swooped in to disagree with Sanders that his remarks praising Fidel Castro's literacy program were similar to what Obama has said in the past. He took pointed aim at billionaire businessman Tom Steyer — who has risen to double digits in South Carolina with a blitz of advertising that has won over many black voters — for having invested in private prisons. When Steyer noted that he has disavowed that move, Biden called him a "Tommy come lately."
He pressed his case on gun control, saying: "I'm the only one that ever got it done nationally. I beat the NRA twice. I got assault weapons banned." He invoked nearby Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where "nine people [were] shot dead by a white supremacist" in 2015.
After repeatedly complaining about rivals interrupting and cross-talking, Biden offered up the unintentional laugh line of the night. After answering a question briefly without rambling on, he caught himself and said: "Why am I stopping? No one else stops."
Bloomberg was immediately hit by Sanders, who said: "Michael Bloomberg has a solid and strong and enthusiastic base of support. The problem is they're all billionaires." He punched back. "Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States. And that's why Russia is helping you get elected, so you will lose to him," he said. Bloomberg insisted that a Sanders victory would cost Democrats the House and state legislatures, "and then, between gerrymandering and appointing judges, for the next 20 or 30 years, we're going to live with this catastrophe."
Bloomberg to Sanders: 'Russia is helping you get elected'Feb. 26, 202000:46
He tried to avoid getting into lengthy exchanges with Warren, noting at one point that he had conceded to her demand to release women who have accused him of inappropriate comments from non-disclosure agreements. He made his pitch as a doer, saying he's led a city that's "bigger than most countries in the world."
"I have been training for this job since I stepped on the pile that was still smoldering on 9/11. I know what to do," he said.
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, came armed with a litany of attack lines against Sanders, and he delivered them one by one. He said that Sanders' health care math doesn't work and that it "adds up to four more years of Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House." Democratic candidates who captured the House, he said, "are not running on your platform — they are running away from your platform as fast as they can." He joined Warren in knocking Sanders on the Senate filibuster: "How are we going to deliver a revolution if you won't even support a rule change?"
South Carolina is an important test for Buttigieg where he's weakest — with African American voters, who make up more than half the Democratic electorate. He went out of his way to speak to them, remarking on issues like the black-white gap in life expectancy in this state.
Sanders, pummeled from every angle, found himself on defense throughout the debate. He stood up for his electability by pointing to the many polls showing that "I beat Trump." He argued that to win the presidency, "what you're going to need is an unprecedented grassroots movement of black and white and Latino, Native American and Asian people who are standing up and fighting for justice." He dodged a question about whether he'd move the U.S. Embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem.
Asked about his past remarks praising Fidel Castro's literacy program, Sanders said, "I have opposed authoritarianism all over the world," but he argued that the U.S. has overthrown governments in places like Chile and Iran to the detriment of global security. He apologized for his vote in 2005 to give immunity to gun makers from lawsuits if firearms are used criminally: "I have cast thousands of votes, including bad votes. That was a bad vote."
Sanders had opportunities to press his message of flipping the table on an economic system that has left many working-class Americans dissatisfied. At the end, he said the biggest misconception about him is that "the ideas I'm talking about tonight are radical — they're not."
Klobuchar, a senator from Minnesota, sits near the bottom of the pack and faces grim prospects for the nomination as she competes for a limited slice of moderate voters who have many options.
She pressed on with her message of pragmatism Tuesday night and spent a significant chunk of time making the case against Sanders. She reminded voters that she was the only Democrat who raised her hand in a previous debate when the candidates were asked whether they're uncomfortable with a democratic socialist nominee. She said that "the math does not add up" with Sanders' proposals and that "all those bold progressive things" can be achieved without alienating large numbers of people.
Steyer made the case against a couple of his rivals, but he didn't make much of a compelling case for himself throughout the evening. He said he worried that the race could come down to Sanders and Bloomberg, which means "we're either going to support somebody who is a democratic socialist or somebody who has a long history of being a Republican."
"I am scared," he said.
It's not clear whether the debate will earn him any new votes — or even help him hold on to the support he has built in South Carolina thanks to heavy spending on TV ads here.