Charleston, South Carolina (CNN)Tuesday night’s debate was a frenetic free-for-all, with six candidates all trying to knock Democratic presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders off the course of claiming the party’s nomination.
But a series of narrower fights might have mattered even more, as everyone in the field vies to emerge as the lone challenger to Sanders with time running out: South Carolina’s primary is Saturday and Super Tuesday, when 14 states and American Samoa vote, is three days later.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s approach was clearest: precise, selective swings at Sanders; damn the torpedoes against former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and billionaire businessman Tom Steyer fought over their records on race, courting a much narrower audience: the African American voters who will make up more than half the electorate in South Carolina.
Among Biden’s competitors in the moderate lane, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg tried to hammer Sanders all night — talking over his answers repeatedly in his most aggressive debate performance yet. And Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar stayed above the fray, instead offering herself as an above-it-all alternative to the food fight viewers were watching.
Here are eight takeaways from the 10th Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night in Charleston:
Warren set the tone. Bloomberg followed, then Buttigieg, then Biden.
By the end of the first half-hour, everyone onstage had taken a whack at Sanders. Their aim was clear: knock him off his pedestal.
Whether they hit the mark is another question.
Bloomberg said Sanders was a weak general election candidate, which is why “Russia is trying to get (him) elected.” Warren accused Sanders’ team of “trashing” her over her plan to pay for “Medicare for All.” Buttigieg scoffed at Sanders’ calls for political revolution when — in refusing to blow up the Senate filibuster — he won’t make “a rule change.” Biden again slammed Sanders over his votes against the Brady Act, which mandated a waiting period on handgun purchases.
Sanders was also put on the defensive by the moderators, who questioned his past support for legislation that protects gun manufacturers from lawsuits, his comments — recently and going back decades — about Cuba and whether he was sufficiently pro-Israel.
In front of an audience that didn’t cheer even for his most reliable applause lines, Sanders stuck to the message that has been core to his campaign. There were missteps, but for rivals desperate to change the trajectory of the race, the knockout blow never came.
In Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, the most important constituency is African-American voters, who make up more than half the electorate and who Biden has called his “firewall” of support.
That reality turned the debate into a brawl between Biden and Steyer, who has made significant inroads with black voters after focusing his campaign on South Carolina more than any other state.
Biden lambasted Steyer for investing in private prisons.
“They hogtied young men in prison here in this state. They in fact made sure that in Georgia they did not have health care for the people that were being held,” Biden said.
“You wrote the crime bill,” Steyer shot back, referencing the 1994 legislation signed into law by former President Bill Clinton and noting that it had imposed stiff mandatory minimum sentences that had left hundreds of thousands of black and brown people in jail.
Steyer then talked about all the efforts he has made to end the private prison system in California and address systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
“Tommy come lately,” Biden quipped.
Warren has been quietly chipping away at Sanders for weeks. On Tuesday night, she showed her hand early on.
After talking up the Democratic Party’s progressive wing and its goals, sprinkling in some praise for Sanders, she began to explain why she was the better bet to turn those ideas into reality.
She was most pointed on their shared support for Medicare for All, the bill Sanders famously wrote and Warren, after backing it, first put out a plan to finance, then said she would implement in two separate stages.
“Bernie and I both want to see universal health care, but Bernie’s plan doesn’t explain how to get there. Doesn’t show how we’re going to get enough allies into it and doesn’t show enough about how we’re going to pay for it,” Warren said.
After she “dug in” and offered the pay-for plan, Warren added, “Bernie’s team trashed me for it.”
Her message was clear: If you like Sanders’ politics and want his platform to become a reality, I’m the one to make it happen — and unify the party in the process.
Other candidates might have failed to nail him down on it. But Sanders showed he hadn’t come up with a stronger explanation for his praise of Fidel Castro’s Cuban regime’s literacy efforts — something that could become a long-term political headache for the Vermont senator’s campaign.
On Tuesday night, Sanders pointed out that former President Barack Obama had made comments similar to his about Cuba.
“Occasionally, it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy, and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world — in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran, and when dictatorships, whether it is the Chinese or the Cubans, do some