Democratic White House hopefuls on Tuesday rounded on the party’s leftist frontrunner, US Senator Bernie Sanders, during a feisty debate, attacking him as too extreme for US voters and a flawed challenger to US President Donald Trump.
Former US vice president Joe Biden, who needs a victory in South Carolina’s crucial primary on Saturday to keep his campaign alive, hit Sanders as soft on gun control, while billionaire former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg claimed Russia was working to help Sanders win the nomination — betting he would be defeated in November.
Sanders’ rivals joined forces in savaging the self-described democratic socialist as too radical to appeal to a broad swathe of Americans.
US Senator Elizabeth Warren, former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg and US Senator Amy Klobuchar, all desperate to halt Sanders’ momentum before it is too late, laid into his ability to deliver on costly programs such as universal health care and tuition-free college.
Buttigieg, a 38-year-old military veteran presenting himself as a unifier, warned a Sanders fight against Trump would spell “chaos” and divide the nation.
“I tell you what it adds up to. It ends up as four more years of Donald Trump,” Buttigieg said.
Sanders is in pole position in South Carolina, the last step before Super Tuesday next week when 14 states vote and a whopping one-third of all delegates — the representatives who pick the nominee at the Democratic Party’s July convention — are up for grabs.
The 78-year-old hit back at the charge his policies were too “radical,” insisting such ideas “exist in countries all over the world,” including the notion that health care is a human right.
“The way we beat Trump, which is what everybody up here wants, is we need a campaign of energy and excitement,” Sanders said. “We need to bring working people back into the Democratic Party.”
Talking over one another in often contentious exchanges, the seven candidates aggressively vied for attention, locking horns on everything from housing to China policy, and whether to move the US embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv.
Seeking to prove he is still in the fight, Biden put in a spirited performance and snapped back at moderators who tried to cut him off, telling them: “I’m not going to be quiet anymore, OK?”
He aimed a sharp attack at Sanders over gun control, an issue largely absent from previous debates, and a significant weakness for the Vermont senator who voted against legislation that would have allowed lawsuits against gun manufacturers.
Bloomberg sought to cast a Sanders nomination as a sure path to losing.
“[Russian President] Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States, and that’s why Russia is helping you get elected so you’ll lose to him,” he told Sanders in a heated opening exchange.
Sanders had emerged largely unscathed from the previous debate, but he acknowledged he was in the firing line, with rivals seeking to derail his push for the nomination following two straight victories, in New Hampshire and then Nevada.
“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight,” he said to laughter. “I wonder why.”
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