Seven Democratic candidates took the debate stage Tuesday in South Carolina to win over voters before the state’s primary on Saturday.
Here are the key takeaways:
Sanders takes heat as front-runner
Sen. Bernie Sanders is currently leading in the delegate count following his showings in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. The six other candidates began the debate by questioning his viability in the general election and asserting why he wouldn’t be the best candidate.
"Do you want to have someone in charge of this ticket who wants to put forward 60 trillion dollars in spending? Three times the American economy. I don’t think we do," said Sen. Amy Klobachar. "I think we can get all those bold, progressive things done without having someone that's so alienating that we're going to turn off the voters that we need to bring with us."
"We are looking at a party that has decided that we're either going to support someone who is a Democratic socialist or somebody who has a long history of being a Republican," added Tom Steyer, also attacking former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "And I am scared if we cannot pull this party together, if we go to one of those extremes, we take a terrible risk of re-electing Donald Trump."
Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg brought up recent reports that found the Russian government is working to help Sanders' campaign.
“I mean, look, if you think the last four years have been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump,” Buttigieg said. “Think about what that will be like for this country.”
Sanders took his response directly to Vladimir Putin.
“Hey, Mr. Putin, if I'm president of the United States, trust me, you're not going to interfere in any more American elections,” he said.
Sanders also came under attack for his comments made on Sunday's "60 Minutes" where he complimented dictator Fidel Castro's educational programs. The senator said he has opposed "authoritarianism all over the world."
"Of course you have a dictatorship in Cuba," he said.
Buttigieg expressed concern that Sanders' views would hurt other Democrats in key elections across the nation.
"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," he said.
Bloomberg parries attacks
In his second debate appearance, Bloomberg responded to criticism about his past policies both as mayor and business leader.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized Bloomberg’s past support of Republicans, including Sen. Lindsay Graham and her 2012 Senate opponent, Scott Brown.
“I don't care how much money Mayor Bloomberg has," she said. "The core of the Democratic party will never trust him. He has not earned their trust."
But Bloomberg, who is focusing on the Super Tuesday states and isn’t competing in the South Carolina contest, brushed off her concerns by calling them “sideshows,” and touted his record in New York.
“When people hired me to run New York City three times in an overwhelmingly Democratic progressive city, they elected me again and again,” he said.
Warren once again brought up Bloomberg’s past allegations of sexism and harassment, including a claim in the 1990s that he told an employee who announced she was pregnant to "kill it." Warren recalled her own experience where she was let go from a teaching job at 21 after she was pregnant with her first child.
“At least I didn't have a boss who said to me, ‘Kill it,’ the way that Mayor Bloomberg … is alleged to have said to one of his pregnant employees,” she said.
Bloomberg interrupted her, denying those claims, and issued another apology to any woman he may have hurt with his comments.
“What happened here is, we went back 40 years and we could only find three cases where women said they were uncomfortable,” he said.
Bloomberg's use of the controversial stop and frisk police tactic and his recent apologies came up again in the debate as moderator Gayle King asked him how he would counter people's skepticism about his reversal. The mayor touted his support from 100 black elected New York City officials, as well as the city's drop in crime and its overall increase in quality of life.
"We've done the things that people need in New York City, for all ethnicities," he said.
A forceful Biden emerges
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has underperformed in the caucuses and primary, is banking on a win in South Carolina to regain his momentum. The former vice president said he is working to gain the black vote, despite polls showing gains from Sanders, and cited his years of working with the African American community.
"The people know me," he said. "My entire career has been wrapped up in dealing with civil rights and civil liberties. I don't expect anything. I plan to earn the vote."
Biden brought up his work in passing gun control legislation, noting that he helped pass the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban in the 1990s.
"I'm the only one that ever got it done nationally," he said when asked about efforts to curb gun violence.
Biden also talked about his plans for foreign diplomacy, saying that he would not allow Chinese firms to build U.S. infrastructure, and that he would investigate Russia for its interference in U.S. elections. He also criticized President Trump's negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
"You don't negotiate with a dictator, give him legitimacy, without any notion whether he is going to do anything at all," he said.
Biden brushed off the moderator's question about his future after South Carolina, repeating that he was going to win the primary there.
"Folks, I intend to win South Carolina, and I will win the African American vote here in South Carolina," he said.
Race appears throughout
With South Carolina looming as a big test of a diverse electorate, the debate covered a wide range of topics concerning race.
Moderator Bill Whitaker asked the candidates about their strategies to solve income inequality among black Americans, noting that black men earn 73 cents for every dollar earned by white men, and are about twice as likely to be unemployed.
Businessman Tom Steyer called for reparations to the black community.
“We should have a formal commission on race to retell the story of the last 400-plus years in America of African Americans,” he said.
Sanders pushed his plans to decriminalize marijuana and expunge the records of those who were arrested on possession charges.
“I'll tell you what else we're going to do, we're going to provide help to the African American, Latino, Native American community to start businesses to sell legal marijuana, rather than let a few corporations control the legalized marijuana market,” he said.
Warren said that the country’s housing plan needed to address past policies that hurt minorities. She said her housing plan would deal with the effects of red lining in black communities.
“It is important to recognize the role that the federal government played for decades and decades in discriminating against African Americans having an opportunity to buy homes,” she said.
The mood is feisty, chaotic
With Super Tuesday only a week away, candidates pressed to make their bast case in the time remaining. That led to numerous interruptions, several moments of shouting, and a few complaints against the moderators.
Following an argument about Sanders' impact on the top of the ticket, especially for the members of the House who helped win a majority for the party, Biden appeared upset over the disruptive tone of the debate.
"I guess the only way to do this is jump in and speak twice as long as you should," he said, before launching into an attack on Steyer over his investment firms and past investments in private prisons.
Steyer shot back at the former vice president, citing the crime bill that he said sent untold black and Latino Americans to prison.
“I have worked for racial justice completely, and that is an absolute unfair statement,” Steyer said.
Sen. Amy Klobachar warned the candidates that if they didn’t put aside their differences and work to have the party win all contests in November, there will be tough consequences.
“If we spend the next four months tearing our party apart, we're going to watch Donald Trump spend the next four years tearing our country apart,” she said.
This report was featured in the Feb. 26 episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.
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