Five things to watch in the South Carolina debate


Seven Democratic White House hopefuls will take the debate stage in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday night as the primary race enters a crucial seven-day stretch that may very well determine who takes the party’s presidential nomination.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will step onto the debate stage as the race’s front-runner after notching back-to-back wins in the New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucuses.

But he’s almost certain to face biting attacks from the six other candidates, including former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who are scrambling to distinguish themselves as leading alternatives to the Vermont senator.

The debate will also prove critical for former Vice President Joe Biden, who has seen his front-runner status in the race fade in recent weeks. He’s banking on a strong showing in South Carolina, with its large proportion of black voters, to lend momentum to his campaign.

The debate, co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, will begin at 8 p.m. EST.

Here are five things to watch for in Tuesday’s debate in Charleston:

Sanders is going to come under attack

Sanders is heading into the debate as the primary race’s nominal front-runner following a near-win in Iowa and back-to-back victories in New Hampshire and Nevada, giving his opponents all the more reason to go on the attack.

Already, some campaigns have telegraphed plans to go after Sanders on Tuesday night. Dan Kanninen, an adviser to Bloomberg’s campaign, told reporters on Monday that the debate “needs to be about one candidate and that’s Bernie Sanders.”

Meanwhile, Biden has stepped up attacks on the Vermont senator in recent days, launching a digital ad in South Carolina that accused him of plotting to undercut former President Obama.

Buttigieg has also shown a willingness to aggressively take on Sanders, using a speech after the Nevada caucuses on Saturday to sharpen contrasts between himself and the senator.

All the candidates have a common goal in targeting Sanders: to cast themselves as a leading alternative to a front-runner who some Democrats fear will be a liability to the party if he clinches the nomination.

The situation is now viewed as more urgent than ever, especially with Super Tuesday just a week away. Bloomberg’s and Buttigieg’s campaigns have already warned that the March 3 primaries could give Sanders an “insurmountable” delegate lead in the race unless a moderate alternative is able to emerge from the crowded pack.

Candidates will make appeals to black voters

South Carolina may be the fourth state to vote in the Democratic nominating contest, but it’s the first in which a majority — about 60 percent — of the Democratic electorate is black. Expect the candidates to make explicit appeals to those voters when they take the stage in Charleston on Tuesday night.

For Biden, who has long held a polling edge over his rivals in support among black voters, Tuesday’s debate may be more of a test of whether he can hold on to that support.

The former vice president has faced criticism over his past stances on issues affecting black communities — the 1994 crime bill or his opposition to mandatory school busing in the 1970s, for instance — and recent polls suggest his advantage may be fading.

He’s also facing competition from billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who has spent heavily in the state and is aggressively courting black voters. Recent polls show the former hedge fund manager with some strength in South Carolina, but he’s also likely to face attacks for his business record, including his past investments in private prisons.

For Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in particular, there’s a sense of urgency to the South Carolina debate. All three have struggled to build strong support among black voters in the Palmetto State, with recent polls showing them lingering in single digits.

An NBC News-Marist survey released on Monday showed Warren with 7 percent support among black voters, while Buttigieg and Klobuchar notched 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively. The debate may offer them their last big chance before the primary on Saturday to make a case to those voters.

Can Warren have a second big night?

Warren came alive in the Democratic debate in Las Vegas last week, delivering the kind of incisive attacks against Bloomberg and other rivals that many of her supporters had been hoping for for months and fueling a fundraising surge that netted her more than $5 million in the day that followed.

The Massachusetts senator is likely to try to recreate that energy on Tuesday night when she takes the debate stage in Charleston. But unlike the Las Vegas debate, the one in South Carolina carries more urgency. She’s running in fourth place in recent polls in the state and Tuesday’s debate offers one of her last chances to improve her standing.

One key question is whether — or how aggressively — she’ll go after Sanders. The senators are longtime allies and both occupy the primary field’s progressive lane.

On one hand, attacking Sanders too sharply risks isolating many of the liberal voters that Warren will likely need to succeed in the race. On the other, she hasn’t yet notched any victories in the nominating contest and time is running out for her to show that she can be a competitive candidate.

Bloomberg gets a chance for a bounce back

In the roughly three months since he launched his presidential bid, Bloomberg propelled himself near the top of national polls with a free-spending advertising campaign that cast him as the only candidate capable of taking on President Trump in the 2020 general election.

But the image that Bloomberg had spent hundreds of millions of dollars cultivating took a massive hit last week as he struggled to fend off rapid-fire attacks from his rivals on the debate stage in Las Vegas. Throughout the forum, he stumbled through responses, often appearing out of touch and unrepentant for past policy positions.

Tuesday night’s debate will give him an opportunity to try to revive his image. Making it even more important for Bloomberg is the fact that Super Tuesday is just a week away.

The former New York City mayor declined to compete in the first four primary and caucus states and opted instead to anchor his presidential prospects on a strong showing in the March 3 primary contests. There won’t be another debate for another three weeks, meaning that the forum in Charleston on Tuesday night will be his last chance for a while to show he has what it takes to win.

How nasty will the attacks get?

As the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has become more urgent, the candidates’ attacks on one another have grown more bitter and personal, and it appears increasingly likely that that shift may set the tone for Tuesday night’s debate.

In his digital ad attacking Sanders as being disloyal to Obama this week, Biden asserted that the Vermont senator “can’t be trusted.”

Buttigieg mounted his most explicit attacks yet on Sanders in a post-Nevada caucuses speech that accused his rival of “ignoring, dismissing, or even attacking the very Democrats we absolutely must send to Capitol Hill.”

And that’s not to mention the flurry of attacks that characterized the last debate in Las Vegas.

The debate in Charleston may end up being the most hostile yet. Not only will there be more candidates onstage than in Las Vegas, but it may end up being the last debate for some of the candidates, especially those who fall flat in the South Carolina primary or on Super Tuesday. Consequently, it’s possible that the candidates see little downside to getting nasty or personal on Tuesday night.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Michael Bloomberg Pete Buttigieg South Carolina debate Tom Steyer
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