The Loudest Debate Yet

Days before two race-defining contests, the seven Democrats seemed worried about what’s next.

Patrick Semansky / AP

Well, that was loud.

The seven Democrats vying for the party’s presidential nomination shouted their way through the 10th debate tonight in Charleston, South Carolina, ahead of Saturday’s primary. They interrupted one another, bickered with one another, and bitterly accused one another of all manner of political and moral failings.

“I’m not out of time!” former Vice President Joe Biden snapped at one particularly chaotic moment. Like one of the more memorable segments at the first debate, last summer, the words might have carried a double meaning, and not in the way Biden wanted.

For Biden, and indeed for several of the candidates onstage, tonight was perhaps their final opportunity to rejigger the Democratic race before Senator Bernie Sanders can dramatically widen his delegate lead next week in the Super Tuesday contests. Biden is banking first on a victory in South Carolina this weekend—tonight he vowed to win the state but notably would not guarantee that he’d stay in the race if he lost. Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, along with former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and the billionaire Tom Steyer, could also have been appearing in their final debate.

In their voices you could hear not only anger but panic. They seemed worried about the impending demise of their individual campaigns, yes, but in a race that has turned so sharply on the question of electability, their fear went a step further: Each Democrat on that stage seemed to suggest that without his or her name at the top of the ticket, the party stood no chance of defeating Donald Trump in November.

“I am scared,” Steyer said as he inveighed against both Sanders and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “If we cannot pull this party together, if we go to one of those extremes, we take a terrible risk of reelecting Donald Trump.”

After largely escaping the spotlight last week in Nevada, Sanders was a frequent target tonight. “Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United states, and that’s why Russia is helping you,” Bloomberg said in the debate’s opening moments, referencing reports that Russia is interfering on behalf of both Trump and Sanders.

Virtually all of the candidates except Warren said the Vermont democratic socialist would be a drag on the Democratic ticket. “I like Bernie,” Klobuchar said. “We came in together to the Senate. But I do not think that this is the best person to lead the ticket.”

For the second week in a row, Warren lit into Bloomberg repeatedly. In one of the most visceral attacks of the entire campaign, she used her own story of losing a teaching job when she got pregnant to dredge up an accusation made by one of Bloomberg’s employees. A woman alleging workplace discrimination at Bloomberg’s financial firm said that when he found out she was expecting a child, he told her to “kill it.” The audience in Charleston gasped when Warren raised the charge, and some even booed. “I never said that,” Bloomberg angrily replied.

Earlier, Warren had brought up Bloomberg’s recent history of supporting Republicans, noting that he has supported South Carolina’s own Senator Lindsey Graham as well as conservative Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. When she ran for the Senate herself in 2012, Bloomberg backed the incumbent Republican, Scott Brown. That past, she said, would make him an unacceptable risk in the general election. “I don’t care how much money he has,” Warren said. “The core of the Democratic Party will never trust him.”

Warren treaded much more lightly with Sanders, although she did draw more of a contrast with him than she has in the past. “Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better president than Bernie,” she said, explaining that she’s had more success in the fights she’s waged, such as pushing for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She said their plans for Medicare for All were similar, but his “doesn't show enough about how we’re going to pay for it.”

“I dug in,” Warren continued. “I did the work, and then Bernie's team trashed me for it. We need a president who is going to dig in, do the hard work, and actually get it done.”

It was a clear shot, but like so many of the attacks leveled against Sanders tonight, it was a glancing blow. For Warren, as for the others, it might have come too late. The early contests end on Saturday, and then one-third of the country weighs in on March 3.

The Democrats were louder and more desperate tonight because they’re all realizing that to stop Sanders, they’re just about out of time.