The Memo

Winners and losers from the South Carolina debate

Seven Democratic presidential candidates took the stage Tuesday night in Charleston, S.C., for a fiery debate days before the state’s primary on Saturday.

The showdown in the Palmetto State also marked the final debate before Democrats battle in the biggest day on the primary calendar — Super Tuesday — next week.

Who won and lost in the latest debate?


Former Vice President Joe Biden

Biden kept his hopes alive with one of his strongest debate performances.

He is facing a moment of truth in South Carolina. 

The Palmetto State primary is a must-win after disappointing finishes in the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire and a distant second in Nevada.

Biden hit front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) right out of the gate on two of his greatest vulnerabilities — his record on gun control and the fact that he reportedly considered a primary challenge to former President Obama in 2012.

Elsewhere, Biden sought to shore up his support from black voters, reiterating that he had worked on issues of racial and economic justice for “years and years.”

Above all, Biden sought to portray himself as someone with the political and strategic chops to get things done rather than merely talk about aspirations.

The former vice president’s tone and demeanor were, if anything, more important than his words. 

This was a far sharper, more vigorous Biden than in other debates. 

He needed a good night, and had one of his best.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Warren is the most consistent debater left in the race.

She went after former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg once again in this debate. She did not eviscerate him as thoroughly as she did last week in Las Vegas, but she again raised questions about his treatment of women in the workplace. 

She made a broader argument, too, about his feasibility as a nominee.

“I don’t care how much money Mayor Bloomberg has,” she said, “The core of the Democratic Party will never trust him.”

Warren aimed some fire at Sanders as well, albeit in a more nuanced way, questioning his strategy for implementing “Medicare for All.”

Warren has underperformed expectations this primary season — and there is no immediate reason to believe South Carolina will offer redemption. She is a distant fourth in the RealClearPolitics polling average.

Still, it was another strong debate for the Massachusetts senator.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Sanders won on Tuesday by not obviously losing.

He came under the kind of sustained attack that any front-runner faces. 

Biden suggested he could not accomplish much. Bloomberg said nominating him would gift reelection to President Trump. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg complained that a Trump versus Sanders contest would be “toxic” and “exhausting.”

But Sanders withstood all the criticism without making any huge errors of his own — even if his continued defense of the educational accomplishments of Fidel Castro’s Cuba disconcerts many Democrats, especially in Florida.

The more immediate reality is that Sanders doesn’t need to win South Carolina, given that he is well placed for Super Tuesday. 

His rivals needed to hurt him badly. There were a lot of the jabs thrown at him on stage in Charleston, but none knocked him down, much less out.


Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)

Klobuchar had another solid but unspectacular night. 

She made her case effectively enough, reiterating one of her central arguments that Democrats need to win “in the middle of the country” and she is the person to do it. 

But the Minnesota senator has struggled with black voters, who typically cast more than 50 percent of the ballots in the South Carolina Democratic primary. And the suspicion lingers that she may have hit her high point with a third-place finish in New Hampshire on Feb. 11.

There was nothing approaching a game-changing moment for Klobuchar in Charleston — and she probably needed one.

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D)

Buttigieg’s attacks, particularly on Sanders, have become sharper with time. 

But the former mayor is under serious pressure from Bloomberg and Biden as the three compete to be the main centrist alternative to Sanders.

Buttigieg made his now-familiar calls for civility and constructiveness on Tuesday. But he did not have any obvious moment that could convert voters he has not already won over.


Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

It wasn’t a disaster. But it wasn’t good.

Bloomberg came in for abundant criticism last week after a debate performance in Las Vegas that was widely derided as dismal.

He did a little better in Charleston, especially on more policy-heavy topics such as his record on education in New York.

But Bloomberg remains a stilted debater. At one point, a supposedly self-deprecating joke about his Las Vegas debacle fell flat. And Warren got under his skin once again.

Bloomberg also opened up by jabbing at Sanders over reports that Russia was seeking to boost the Vermont senator’s campaign. It was an overly aggressive line of attack against the front-runner and seemed to backfire with the audience.

Bloomberg’s huge advertising expenditure might yet save him, but his debating skills won’t.

Businessman Tom Steyer

Steyer, like Bloomberg, has been buoyed by big ad spending. Unlike Bloomberg, he is on the ballot in South Carolina, where he is polling in third place.

The fundamental issue Steyer has faced is explaining any real rationale for his candidacy. He has so far failed to offer a unique selling point and failed, again, to provide one Tuesday.

CBS News

The conduct of the debate was messy at times, and the moderators faced an unusually high level of criticism on social media.

In one sense, they were caught between a rock and a hard place: When they allowed candidates to attack each other and cross-talk, Twitter erupted with complaints that the debate was too chaotic. When they interjected, they took fire for excessive interruption.

Still, there were genuine missteps.

There was a question about Bloomberg’s attempt to ban sugary sodas in New York City, and a flippant final round focused on “misperceptions” about each candidate — but there was no mention of climate change, for example.

There was also late confusion when the network took a final ad break for no apparent purpose when the debate was basically over. All in all, it was not a great night for the network.

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

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