Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far

The Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday rapidly devolved into a free-for-all showdown that underscored the increasingly urgent positions of several of the candidates. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), who has emerged as the front-runner in the race following back-to-back wins in the New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucuses, faced some of the most direct attacks.

Former Vice President Joe Biden hammered the Vermont senator over his record on gun control legislation and accused him of wanting to primary former President Obama in 2012. And former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg seized on intelligence reports that the Russian government is seeking to boost Sanders in the primary contest.

Sanders's fellow progressive, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), hit him over his platform, arguing he was ill-prepared to enact his agenda.

"I dug in. I did the work, and then Bernie's team trashed me for it," Warren said. "We need a president who is going to dig in, do the hard work, actually get it done. Progressives have got one shot, and we need to spend it with a leader who will get something done." 

Bloomberg also continued to take heat on the stage after what was widely seen as a poor debate performance last week in Las Vegas. 

Sanders attacked Bloomberg's status as a billionaire in his first answer of the evening on economic growth. 

"You're right. The economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg and other billionaires," Sanders said. 

Bloomberg responded by going after Sanders on reports of Russian interference. 

"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 can lose to him" Bloomberg said. 

Meanwhile, Warren jabbed Bloomberg for his past support of Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and alleged Bloomberg said "kill it" to a female employee after he found out she was pregnant.

"I never said that," Bloomberg responded. "And for the record, if she was a teacher in New York City, she would have never have had that problem. We treated our teachers the right way and the unions will tell you that."

Bloomberg was referring to Warren's story of being let go from a teaching position after becoming visibly pregnant.

No candidate was safe from attacks on the debate stage in Charleston, S.C. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) bluntly accused Bloomberg of supporting racist policies during his tenure as New York City mayor. And billionaire activist Tom Steyer came under fire from Biden, who dubbed the former hedge fund manager a "Tommy-Come-Lately" on his opposition to private prisons and criminal justice reform.

The series of bitter - and often personal - exchanges comes at a time of mounting urgency in the Democratic presidential race. Sanders has pulled ahead in the delegate count after a string of top performances in the first three nominating contests, while the crowded moderate lane has shown no signs of thinning out.

The debate in South Carolina is also the last forum before the state's primary on Saturday and then Super Tuesday, when roughly one-third of delegates will be up for grabs. 

For Biden, the South Carolina primary carries particular weight. The former vice president struggled with disappointing finishes in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, and he came in a distant second place to Sanders in Nevada.

His campaign has long argued that South Carolina is a firewall for his political prospects, betting his strong support among black voters will propel him to a resounding victory. But recent polls show a tightening race in the Palmetto State, and allies of Biden are acutely aware that anything short of a first-place finish there on Saturday will likely tank his campaign.

With that pressure in mind, Biden gave a more aggressive performance Tuesday night than he has in past debates. At one point, when a moderator indicated that Biden was out of time to speak, he fired back, noting that Sanders had also continued talking over his allotted time.

"You spoke over time and I'm going to talk," Biden said.

Biden wasn't the only candidate under pressure to perform on Tuesday.

Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Warren were also in need of momentum, especially as Super Tuesday approaches. Each of the three has struggled to win the support of minority voters and are scrambling to prove that they can build the kind of diverse coalition that they will need, not only to win the Democratic nomination but to defeat President Trump in November.

Trump's campaign sought to capitalize on the contentious evening, calling the Democratic Party "a hot mess."'

"Tonight's debate was further evidence that not one of these candidates is serious or can stand toe-to-toe with President Trump," the campaign's national press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement. 

Earlier, one of the most contentious moments of the night took place between Sanders and Buttigieg, as the progressive senator defended his progressive platform. 

The two men tried to talk over each other for close to a minute before Warren interjected, "This has to stop."