Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was the main focus of his rivals at the Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina on Tuesday, as the other six candidates on stage sought to knock off the frontrunner and assert themselves in his stead.
Many of Sanders' rivals focused on the electability of the 78-year-old democratic socialist, arguing that he is a flawed candidate to pit against President Donald Trump in November.
A Sanders nomination "adds to four more years of Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House, and the inability to get the Senate into Democratic hands," Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, declared.
"Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States," former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg added, facing Sanders. "And that's why Russia is helping you get elected, so you will lose to him."
Their attacks also highlighted Sanders' vast policy differences from the others in the field. "I don't like his solutions," businessman Tom Steyer said. "I don't believe that a government takeover of large parts of the economy makes any sense for working people or for families."
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar went after Sanders for the price tag of his "Medicare For All" legislation, telling him that voters "are not with you on spending nearly $60 trillion." Former Vice President Joe Biden hammered Sanders for his opposition to various gun control measures, claiming they led to "carnage on our streets." And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren made a personal contrast with her ideological ally, starkly claiming that she "would make a better president than Bernie."
At one point in the night, Sanders exclaimed: "I'm hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight! I wonder why."
Standing center stage and receiving attacks from rivals on either side, Sanders rarely strayed from a strident defense of his policies and vision. When candidates were asked at the close of the debate to name a misconception about them, the Vermont senator replied: "That the ideas I'm talking about are radical. They're not. In one form or another, they exist in countries all over the world."
Sanders also defended his recent controversial comments praising socialist and communist governments abroad, insisting that he "opposed authoritarianism all over the world" but acknowledging that those "governments occasionally do things that are good."
"I am not looking forward to a scenario where it comes down to Donald Trump, with his nostalgia for the social order of the 1950s," Buttigieg interjected, "and Bernie Sanders with a nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s."
As Sanders himself recognized, the ubiquity of his name throughout the debate underlined an existential dynamic facing the Democrats on stage: he alone appears to have a path to a plurality in the race for delegates, but none of his centrist rivals seem willing to step aside to coalesce behind an alternative.
The search for an anti-Sanders standard-bearer seemingly wasn't bolstered much on Tuesday night. Many candidates landed punches on the frontrunner but none emerged as his chief antagonist (like Warren did battering Bloomberg in the previous debate), even as some (including Biden and Bloomberg) offered steadier performances than in the past at a crucial time for their campaigns.
Indeed, while the Nevada debate was marked by Warren's offensive and Bloomberg's stumble, the South Carolina sequel likely won't be remembered for the success or failure of a certain pair of candidates. Instead, it may go down as the night when the Democratic Party devolved into chaos in primetime.
Senators and mayors shouted over each other throughout the night; yelling and hand-waving reigned as the moderators struggled to calm the feisty stable of candidates.
"A minute-fifteen is really a long time. So we'd ask respectfully if you would all please try to keep to the time," moderator Gayle King pleaded at one point, to no avail, as the candidates' responses repeatedly exceeded their allotted time limits.
Putting into words the fears of many top Democrats as the debate featured repeated crosstalk and did little to produce a challenger to the anti-establishment frontrunner, one of the candidates onstage even took time to bemoan the state of discourse in the debate. "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," Klobuchar said, highlighting the incumbent president's delight as a divided Democratic Party competes to take him on.
The warning of the Minnesota moderate received little attention: Biden, Warren, Steyer, and King were all trying to speak at the same time.