WASHINGTON—The question for Joe Biden, was what he would do with his campaign if he didn’t win the South Carolina primary. “I will win South Carolina,” he said.
It wasn’t exactly an answer to the question, and it didn’t leave him a lot of wiggle room. But at this point, he needs to believe it — he’s staked his campaign on it, and won’t have much of a campaign left if he doesn’t.
The same sense of urgency, seeming at times like manic desperation thanks to stupendously poor debate moderation, was there for most of the people on stage in the South Carolina debate, the last before Super Tuesday. With the state of the race, it may be the last best chance for six of the challengers to stop Bernie Sanders from running away with the nomination.
“I’m hearing my name mentioned a bit tonight,” Sanders said during the first segment of the debate, after virtually all the other candidates had taken their shots at him.
“I did the work, and Bernie’s people attacked me for it,” Warren said, suggesting she shares his priorities but is more effective at getting things done.
Biden mentioned a mass shooting at a local South Carolina church before pointing to a vote Sanders made to exempt gun manufacturers from liability lawsuits.
“We’re not going to win these critical house and senate races if people in those races have to explain why the nominee of the Democratic Party is telling people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime,” Pete Buttigieg said at one point later.
It’s not clear many of the attacks really landed, as Sanders responded each time by turning to his policies and explaining them, often laundry-list style.
A week ago in the debate, Bloomberg was the pinata, and he came out of that one looking like he’d been beaten soundly. In South Carolina, he fended off attacks somewhat better — flatly and firmly denying he once told a pregnant woman who worked for him “kill it,” as Warren rightly pointed out one had claimed.
“I never said it, period, end of story.”
Bloomberg’s jokes, about winning the first debate and people thinking he was six feet tall, fell flat, but he managed to tout his record as mayor of New York City on affordable housing and education, and his work to fight for gun control as a philanthropist. His explanation of the racist stop-and-frisk policy under his mayoralty still sounded shaky (“We let it go too far,” he said, claiming he’s still listening to advice about how to avoid such a mistake”) but his debate performance was much stronger than his clownshow of a week ago.
Bloomberg did get out the strongest, earliest attack on Trump for his lack of preparation for the Coronavirus. “The president fired the pandemic specialist in this country two years ago,” he said, “and he’s defunded the Centers for Disease Control, so we don’t have the organization we need.”
Biden and Buttigieg both seemed churlish at times — Biden because he kept complaining about the moderators not letting him finish his points when the other candidates just ignored them; Buttigieg because at multiple points he interrupted Sanders when Sanders had the floor and continued talking over him, drowning out his answers — sometimes for 30 seconds or more at a time.
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Buttigieg was clearly gunning for Sanders, suggesting at one point that as Trump yearned for the “social order of the 1950s,” Sanders wanted a return to the “revolutionary politics of the 1960s.”
He also, as candidates spoke of racial justice in a state where Black voters make up a big portion of the Democratic vote, said he was humbled “because there are seven white people on this stage talking about racial justice.”
All of the candidates raised Barack Obama’s name repeatedly, aligning themselves with his policies. But as usual, none did so as much as Biden, who invoked his record as vice-president repeatedly. And in particular, in discussing his relationship with Black voters in South Carolina and across the country, perhaps his strongest moment of the debate. “I’ve worked like the devil to earn the vote of the African-American community, not just here but across the country. I’ve been coming here for years and years,” he said.
His answer to a question about his personal motto was representative of a lot of his weaknesses in the debate, and in speaking as a candidate in general. “When you get knocked down, get up. And everyone’s entitled to be treated with dignity. And no one’s better than anyone else,” he said, continuing on into a ramble of more.
“Man of 1,000 mottos, shouted rapid-fire. But asked his weakness, he generated a big laugh, “I have more hair than I think I do.”
Tom Steyer, who has impressive polling numbers in South Carolina, and Amy Klobuchar, who doesn’t, were both onstage as well, but neither had many moments that particularly stood out.
Klobuchar touted her housing policy for a change of pace from usual debate topics, and as usual also touted her experience, but the debate format covering many topics quickly without giving much time for discussion, nor letting all of the candidates discuss even the biggest questions, didn’t do Klobuchar any favours when she tried to explain more detailed points of unfamiliar policies.
Indeed, the format ensured that the debate itself covered a lot of policy ground, but only in a way that skimmed the surface of one or two candidate’s thoughts on each topic, cutting short genuine discussion of differences but bizarrely allowing long chaotic shouting matches to go on for seemingly long stretches of time.
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