Much of last week’s Democratic primary debate focused on billionaire former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who was making his debut on stage — and immediately came under fire for his past.
This week’s debate, on Tuesday night in Charleston, South Carolina, could also prove contentious. But there’s likely to be a new target: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has emerged as the front-runner after winning in New Hampshire and Nevada.
The debate is four days before South Carolina holds its primary, where Sanders is looking to upset former Vice President Joe Biden and lock himself in as the Democratic Party’s leading candidate to face President Donald Trump in November.
Biden has long looked to South Carolina and its largely black electorate to deliver a turning point for his once-promising presidential campaign. After weak finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he came in a distant second in Nevada, behind Sanders, but bolstering his argument that his base is more diverse than those early states.
But Sanders isn’t giving up either.
“We’re fighting to win in South Carolina,” Jeff Weaver, a Sanders strategist, told The New York Times this week, noting that the senator is “moving up” on the former vice president in the state.
According to RealClear Politics‘ polling average, Biden is at about 27 percent in South Carolina while Sanders is at around 22 percent.
“This grassroots movement is unstoppable,” Sanders tweeted after winning the Nevada caucus. “Together, let’s win the Democratic nomination, defeat Trump and transform the country!”
On Monday night, the Sanders campaign ramped up its pressure on Biden, tweeting out an interview with Richland County Councilwoman Dhali Myers, who explained why she was switching her support from Biden to Sanders.
The remaining Democratic candidates — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who went viral last week shredding Bloomberg; as well as Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg and billionaire Tom Steyer — are looking to make an impression as well. While Warren came in third in Iowa and Klobuchar came in third in New Hampshire, neither has seen repeated success.
Buttigieg narrowly won Iowa, narrowly lost in Nevada and placed third in Nevada behind Biden.
Bloomberg, in an unusual strategy, is not on the ballot in any states until “Super Tuesday” on March 3, when 14 states all vote at once.
On Sunday night, Sanders began to face a wave of backlash over comments in a new 60 Minutes interview in which he said, “it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad” with Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba.
The comments — which Sanders made while pointing out Castro had implemented literacy programs for young Cuban children but also denouncing the dictator’s “authoritarian” rule — opened up the candidate to a new angle of attack, not just from Republican lawmakers but from his opponents in the Democratic race looking for any change in momentum.
“Chip in if you don’t want to have to defend Fidel Castro,” Buttigieg tweeted Monday, while calling for campaign contributions.
“Fidel Castro left a dark legacy of forced labor camps, religious repression, widespread poverty, firing squads, and the murder of thousands of his own people. But sure, Bernie, let’s talk about his literacy program,” tweeted Bloomberg, who has spent more than $337 million in a nationwide ad blitz to climb up the national polls and put up a late fight against Sanders for the party’s nomination.
Fidel Castro left a dark legacy of forced labor camps, religious repression, widespread poverty, firing squads, and the murder of thousands of his own people.— Mike Bloomberg (@MikeBloomberg) February 24, 2020
But sure, Bernie, let’s talk about his literacy program. pic.twitter.com/3Xqu435uoA
I ain’t a socialist.— Joe Biden (Text Join to 30330) (@JoeBiden) February 23, 2020
I ain’t a plutocrat.
I’m a Democrat — and I'm proud of it. pic.twitter.com/c8youdmUEL
Biden — who many Democrats pushed to run in the 2016 presidential election and was the party’s leading 2020 candidate about this time last year — has been defensively pushing back against Sanders as a radical candidate for weeks.
“I ain’t a socialist. I ain’t a plutocrat. I’m a Democrat — and I’m proud of it,” Biden said during a campaign speech in Nevada.
Following this week’s contest in South Carolina, 16 contests will be held on “Super Tuesday” next week — maybe the most important day of the Democratic primary, when more than 1,300 of the 1,991 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination will be up for grabs.
Tuesday’s Democratic debate starts at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.