Three more days until the South Carolina primary … six more days until Super Tuesday … 251 days until Election Day!

by Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver

Democratic presidential aspirants in South Carolina on Tuesday accused front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) of being a radical risk who could set back the nation’s fortunes for years to come if he’s the party’s nominee. But during the final debate before more than a dozen states vote over the next week, Sanders calmly pushed back, arguing that polls show he can beat President Trump with a “movement” determined to expand the middle class. 

“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight,” Sanders said. “I wonder why. 

Repeatedly, Sanders was lashed about universal health care, authoritarian regimes and the cost of his various proposals (The Hill).  

Among the most forceful attempted takedowns came from former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who argued that a general election contest between the senator and Trump would be divisive for the country. 

“If you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump,” Buttigieg said. “We have an opportunity to set a different tone.” 

Buttigieg also panned the senator for his remarks to “60 Minutes” about the revolutionary regime of Fidel Castro in Cuba, saying the debate this year shouldn’t be about “what coups happened in the 1970s and 80s.”  

The Hill: Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far. 

The Associated Press: Sanders faces attacks in Democrats’ debate-stage clash. 

Reuters: Raucous debate yields no clear challenger to Sanders. 

The Hill: Five debate takeaways. 

The Hill: Winners and losers from South Carolina debate. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden faced a high bar. The debate was his nationally televised chance to make a closing pitch to South Carolina voters and those in the Super Tuesday states who could soon make Sanders impossible for the rest of the field to catch. Biden forcefully criticized the Vermont senator about his expansive “Medicare for All” plan and long-ago votes backing gun manufacturers. 

Sanders defended his ideas to bring all Americans into a government-run health care system and conceded without protest that his vote to give gun companies immunity from prosecution was “a bad vote.” 

When pressed by the moderators, Biden did not commit to staying in the race if he does not win on Saturday night. According to the latest RealClearPolitics average, Biden leads Sanders by an 8-point margin.  

The Hill: Biden pledges to nominate black woman to Supreme Court. 

The Hill: Biden, Sanders battle over Cuba, Obama. 

Dana Milbank: Sanders is stirring up a sickening sense of deja vu. 

The Hill: Sanders: Israel run by “reactionary racist” in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was steadier in Charleston than he had been in Las Vegas last week, and because Sanders was the target, Bloomberg had openings to play offense. 

“If you keep on going, we will elect Bernie. Bernie will lose to Donald Trump. And Donald Trump and the House and the Senate and some of the statehouses will all go red,” he told the audience, calling it a “catastrophe” that would tilt the Supreme Court and change the country for 20 years or more.  

I am the one choice that makes some sense,” Bloomberg added. “I have the experience. I have the resources. I have the record.”  

Reminiscent of the Nevada debate, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) took turns shooting back at the former New York City mayor over his dealings with China and nondisclosure agreements he reached with an unknown number of former female employees at his businesses. Warren charged, based on recent reporting, that Bloomberg once told an employee to terminate a pregnancy, an accusation that is not new and that he again denied. 

The Hill: Warren, Bloomberg get in heated exchange over alleged treatment of female employees. 

The Washington Post: Bloomberg improves from his last debate — but is it enough? 

The Hill: Bloomberg attacks Sanders over reports of Russian interference. 

The coronavirus inspired questions late in the evening as the epidemic continues to spread from China to 41 other countries. Bloomberg was the first to raise the issue, leading criticism on stage of the Trump administration’s response, including proposed budget cuts at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Referring to the president and his team, the former mayor said, “There’s nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing.”   

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) faulted Trump for not delivering a national address about the government’s response and the known details about the deadly virus. Instead, Trump has tweeted blanket reassurances that Americans are not in danger. “I’m not going to give my website right now. I’m going to give the CDC’s website, which is CDC.gov,”  Klobuchar said somberly.  

During the second half of the event, Trump tweeted a defense of his administration’s coronavirus preparedness, saying Democrats would be critical if “the virus disappeared tomorrow” (The Hill). 

Dan Balz: Sanders takes fire in an unruly debate that left no candidate truly enhanced. 

Jonathan Allen: Bernie Sanders, unleashed at the Democratic debate. 

The next Democratic face-off among candidates is scheduled on March 15 in Phoenix and may look quite different in the wake of Super Tuesday. The event takes place two days before the Arizona primary and will be broadcast by CNN and Univision beginning at 8 p.m. ET. By the time that debate takes place, 24 states and multiple territories will have weighed in.

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