The Democratic debate in South Carolina on Tuesday opened with pointed attacks on U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has jumped to the lead after the first three contests to pick a presidential nominee, and devolved into a confusing two hours of crosstalk as the candidates ignored the moderators and jockeyed for attention.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts re-upped her denunciations of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who needed a strong comeback after his disastrous debate performance last week. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Amy Klobuchar worked to distinguish themselves from the field while billionaire businessman Tom Steyer was back on the stage after failing to qualify last week.
The 10th debate was the final match-up before the state's primary on Saturday. Here are some of the evening's top moments.
GOING FOR BERNIE'S JUGULAR
The candidates opened by zeroing in on Sanders, skewering him over his policies and reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin was helping his campaign.
Bloomberg told him that Vladimir Putin was trying to use him to assist President Donald Trump win a second term.
"That’s why Russia is helping you get elected," Bloomberg said.
Warren acknowledged that she and Sanders agreed on many progressive ideas, but said she would be the better president because she got things done.
"I dug in," she said of her work taking on big banks after the financial crisis in 2008. "I did the work and then Bernie’s team trashed me for it."
Of Sanders' health plan, she said that Sanders' plan did not explain how the country was going to get there.
"Progressives have got one shot and we need to spend it with a leader who will get something done," she said.
Buttigieg said Russians favored the chaos now engulfing the American political scene, and asked the audience to think about what it would mean to the country if the general election pitted Sanders against Trump.
Steyer credited Sanders with being correct on the problems, but not on solutions. The answer is to break the corporate stranglehold on the economy, double the minimum wage and cut taxes by 10 percent for those who make less than $250,000, Steyer said.
Biden accused Sanders of trying to mount a primary challenge against former President Barack Obama because he thought the Obama administration was weak, something Sanders has denied.
The Democratic candidates attacked Bernie Sanders 33 times, according to an NBC News debate tracker, nearly double the amount directed at any other candidate. Second was Michael Bloomberg, with 17 hits, according to the tracker.
At the end, Sanders jumped back in. "I'm hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight," he said. "I wonder why."
Last week, Warren took on Bloomberg unrelentingly, leaving the mayor often looking stunned. She took aim at Bloomberg over accusations that he called women "fat broads" and "horse-faced lesbians" and she demanded that he release the former employees who had accused him or the company of discrimination from non-disclosure agreements.
Warren on Tuesday told a story of being discriminated against on the job after she became pregnant, and this time pushed Bloomberg to release all former employees from nondisclosure agreements.
And Warren accused him of telling a pregnant employee to "kill it," a charge that The Washington Post has reported. Bloomberg reached a confidential settlement with the woman who had sued him, and denied her allegation under oath.
"Never said it," Bloomberg said again on Tuesday.
He did apologize for "jokes" or off-color remarks he is supposed to have made to female employees, but he did not respond to the Warren's demand for more releases from non-disclosure agreements.
"With this senator, enough is never enough," Bloomberg said.
BLOOMBERG JOKES ABOUT HIS DEBATE DEBUT
Bloomberg was widely panned after his debate debut, which was criticized as disastrous. Tuesday night he took aim at the Democrats on the stage and himself.
First he criticized his fellow contestants for failing to pay much attention to the clock as they talked over each other and ignored the moderators' entreaties to finish speaking.
"I’m surprised they showed up after I did such a good job in beating them last week," he said.
A "GENIUS" IN THE WHITE HOUSE
Sanders mocked Trump directly as the senator tackled the country's need to cooperate with other countries to solve problems such as climate change and the coronavirus.
"In the White House today, we have a self-described 'great genius,' self-described, and this great genius has told us that this coronavirus is going to end in two months," Sanders said. "April is the magical deadline that this great scientist in the White House has determined -- I wish I was kidding -- but that is what he said."
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Sanders called for expanding the World Health Organization and fully funding the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and National Institute of Health.
Last year, Trump called himself "an extremely stable genius."
CROSSTALK AND INSULTS
The candidates were supposed to have one minute and 15 seconds to answer direct questions and 45 seconds for rebuttals.
Instead, the debates were characterized by lots of loud crosstalk from the candidates, who drowned each other out and ignored the exhortations from the CBS moderators, Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King, that they stick to the time limits.
“I know it goes fast, but a minute-fifteen is a really long time,” King admonished the candidates to little effect.
Biden turned the free for all into a self deprecating joke, asking at the end of his answer about how he would deal with North Korea, “ Why am I stopping? No one else stops.”
“It’s my Catholic school training,” he added.
“Vice President Biden, you’re a gentleman,” King told him. “Good home training. Thank you, sir.”
“Yeah, gentlemen don’t get very well treated up here,” he said.
Klobuchar asked at another point, “Why don't you let me answer, OK?”
A photo of Klobuchar became emblematic of the night’s pandemonium. She’s standing in the middle of one angry exchange between Biden and Steyer over Steyer’s investment in a private prison system.
Biden incorrectly charged that Steyer had bought the system after “he knew that, in fact, what happened was 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 who were being held.” Slate noted that the allegations came from a lawsuit and report mentioned in a 2000 Mother Jones article.
Steyer’s response: “I bought stock in a prison company thinking they’d do a better job, and I investigated, and I sold it.”
At 38, Buttigieg is the youngest candidate among the Democrats and he managed to remind voters of his age and take on Trump and Sanders at the same time.
“I am not looking forward to a scenario where it comes down to Donald Trump, with his nostalgia for the social order of the 1950s, and Bernie Sanders with a nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s,” he said.
Sanders is facing criticism for a 60 Minutes interview over the weekend, where he defended past comments for left-wing dictatorships like that of Fidel Castro in Cuba. Sanders said he was opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but insisted it was unfair to say that everything under the communist government was bad.
Buttigieg tried to turn Sanders' comments to his advantage by talking about the future, not the coups of the 1970s and 1980s or the Cold War.
"We're not going to win these critical, 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," he said. "We've got to be a lot smarter about this and look to the future.”
Sanders did not back down but instead criticized U.S. foreign policy and Trump while insisting that he had opposed authoritarian governments. The United States had overthrown governments in Chile, Guatemala and Iran, he said.
"And when dictatorships, whether it is the Chinese or the Cubans do something good, you acknowledge that," he said.
"But you don't have to trade love letters with them," he added, in an apparent reference to Trump and his correspondence with North Korea's Kim Jong-un.
WHO WROTE THE BILL?
Klobuchar and Biden tangled over who was responsible for a trying to safeguard women from domestic abusers by keeping weapons out of their hands.
When Klobuchar said she was the author of a bill to close the boyfriend loophole that says that domestic abusers can't go out and get an AK-47, Biden interjected: “I wrote that law.”
“You didn't write that bill,” Klobuchar response. “I wrote that bill.”
Biden clarified that he had written the Violence Against Women Act, which Klobuchar agreed with. But when he continued that it addressed abusers, Klobuchar said, “We'll have a fact check look at this.”
Biden went on to say that he could not get the boyfriend loophole passed and that Klobuchar’s bill is being held up on the desk of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“We're going to lose the Violence Against Women Act across the board,” Biden said.
“So, if I could finish,” Klobuchar said. “I have the bill. Anyone can check it out, to close the boyfriend loophole.”
NBC News obliged on the fact check and found that while Biden did write the Violence Against Women Act, which stopped people who were convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from buying guns, the act covered only some relationships.
Klobuchar’s bill would close that loophole by including stalkers and dating partners.
THE FIRST JEWISH PRESIDENT?
Sanders, who would be the first Jewish president but has called the lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a platform for leaders who express bigotry, was asked what he would say to Americans Jews concerned that he was not supportive enough of Israel.
Would he return the U.S. embassy to Tel Aviv? Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem, a decision praised by Israel but denounced by Palestinians, who insist East Jerusalem must be the capital of their independent state.
Sanders should he would consider moving the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv but said he was proud of being Jewish and had lived in Israel in for some months. Foreign policy in the Middle East should be about protecting the independence and security of Israel without ignoring the suffering of the Palestinian people, he said.
‘But what I happen to believe is that, right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel, through Bibi Netanyahu, you have a reactionary racist who is now running that country,” he said in reference to the country’s prime minister who is running for re-election while under indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
MISCONCEPTIONS AND MOTTOS
At the end of the debate, the candidates were asked what was the biggest misconception about them and what was their personal motto. Here are their answers.
Biggest misconception: That he is only about business, success and money
Motto: To tell the truth and do what’s right no matter what
Biggest misconception: That she’s boring because she is not
Motto: The words of her mentor, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, that politics is about improving people’s lives
Biggest misconception: That he has more hair than he thinks he does
Motto: When you get knocked down, get up, everyone is entitled to dignity, and you’re defined by your courage and redeemed by your loyalty
Biggest misconception: That his ideas are radical, when they are not
Motto: The words of the late South African President Nelson Mandela, that everything is impossible until it happens
Biggest misconception: That she does not eat, when she eats all the time
Motto: Matthew 25 (inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of my brethren you have done it unto me)
Biggest misconception: That he is not passionate
Motto: If you would be a leader, you must first be a servant
Biggest misconception: That he’s 6 feet tall
Motto: He has trained for the job for a long time and when he gets it he’s going to do something rather than just talk about it
Who’s Running for President in 2020?
The field of Democratic 2020 presidential candidates is packed, though some have already dropped out. Those still in the race include a former vice president, senators, businessmen, House members, a former governor and a mayor. As for the GOP, a former governor and former congressman are vying to challenge President Trump.
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Updated Nov. 20, 2019
Note: Incorrect information about Michael Bennet’s cancer diagnosis and titles for Joe Sestak and William Weld have been revised on July 29, 2019, 3:17 p.m. ET.
Credit: Jo Bruni, Emma Barnett, Asher Klein, Dan Macht, Kelly Zegers / NBC; Photos: Getty Images