Sanders parries attacks from all sides in Democratic presidential debate
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US presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders was roundly attacked Tuesday evening in an unusually raucous Democratic debate in South Carolina. The high-stakes event is the final debate before "Super Tuesday" on March 3, when 14 states will hold their primaries.
US Democratic candidates gathered on a stage in South Carolina, which holds its primary election on February 29 – the fourth nominating contest in the presidential primaries after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
Fresh off a victory in the Nevada caucuses on February 21, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders faced jabs from other candidates in the South Carolina debate, causing him to ask wryly, “I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight. I wonder why?”
Candidates wasted no time putting Sanders on the defensive. Early in the discussion, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg told Sanders point-blank, “Russia is helping you get elected,” referring to reports that Russia is attempting to assist Sanders’ presidential campaign.
Sanders deflected Bloomberg’s blow: "Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me you’re not going to interfere in any more American elections."
Former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg chimed in, "I will tell you what the Russians want. They don't have a political party. They want chaos, and chaos is what is coming our way."
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren also took her shot against Sanders, saying, “Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better president than Bernie.” Citing her previous work fighting big banks and health insurance companies, she added: “I dug in. I did the work. And then Bernie's team trashed me for it,” eliciting visible dismay and head-shaking from Sanders.
Former US vice president Joe Biden lashed out at Sanders’ record on guns, criticising his decision to vote against the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (the Brady Bill), which imposed mandatory background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases.
"Bernie voted five times against the Brady Bill ... and wanted a waiting period of 12 hours," Biden said.
Referring to the 2015 mass shooting at a church near the debate venue, Biden added: "I'm not saying [Sanders is] responsible for the nine deaths, but that man would not have been able to get that weapon with the waiting period."
Sanders admitted that opposing the Brady Bill was a “bad vote” on his part.
Sanders was also criticised for not having a precise plan for funding his Medicare for All scheme. This came on the heels of an interview that aired on the US news magazine show 60 Minutes in which Sanders controversially said his health plan would cost the nation $30 trillion.
Warren said, "Bernie and I both want to see universal healthcare. But Bernie's plan doesn't explain how to get there, doesn't show how we're going to get enough allies into it and doesn't show enough about how we're going to pay for it.”
As was widely expected, moderators asked Sanders about his seeming praise of Fidel Castro in the same 60 minutes interview, in which he had said, “You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?"
Sanders defended himself by saying former US president Barack Obama had expressed similar beliefs: “What I said is what Barack Obama said in terms of Cuba. Cuba made progress on education.”
Perhaps the biggest shock of the evening came during an exchange between Warren and Bloomberg regarding his eponymous media company’s treatment of some female employees. She first raised the topic during the Nevada debate.
Warren recounted that when she was 21 she worked as a special education teacher until she was fired for being pregnant. She said: “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.” This was a reference to a Washington Post report that Bloomberg used those words to a female employee in 1995. Bloomberg denied the accusation.
Warren reiterated her previous pleas that Bloomberg release his female former employees from non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) that bar them from speaking of the harassment or gender discrimination they might have experienced. Bloomberg countered that he would indeed release the women from the NDAs. He posted about this decision on his official campaign website on February 21.
He replied to Warren, “Nobody accused me of doing anything other than just making a comment or two." He then complained that the issue was being overly rehashed and said he was going to move away from the topic: “I’m going to focus on some of these other things.”
Bloomberg’s performance in the Nevada debate was widely criticised. Speaking on CNN on Wednesday, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang was blunt: “I don't think he was coached hard enough.”
The heat is on
The pressure for a strong performance was high for all of the contenders. Biden needs to win South Carolina to keep his campaign alive and said he expected to finish first on Saturday. The data journalism site Fivethirtyeight projects that Biden will win the primary, although overall national polls show that Sanders remains ahead at 27.7% with Biden at a distant second of 16.1%, and Warren at 13.0%
Bloomberg's candidacy was always a long shot, and his debate performances did nothing to close the gap. He jumped late into the race and has not been on the ballot in the four early states, opting instead to make a splash on Super Tuesday. He has now spent more than $500 million on campaign advertising.
Super Tuesday falls on March 3 this year, when 15 US jurisdictions will hold votes (14 state primaries plus a caucus in American Samoa) as well as the Democrats Abroad, with 34 percent of the overall delegates up for grabs.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
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