Bernie Sanders’ Democratic rivals prepared to unleash a new wave of attacks against the party’s presidential frontrunner in a high-stakes debate on Tuesday, perhaps their final prime-time opportunity to change the direction of the 2020 nomination fight.
Almost all of the six other candidates set to debate in South Carolina went after Sanders in the hours leading up to the event.
Pete Buttigieg highlighted Sanders’ call for a government-financed health care system as an example of his “polarisation”.
Former vice president Joe Biden accused Sanders of trying to undermine Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election.
And former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg attacked Sanders’ record on gun control.
The new wave of infighting came as Democrats were set to meet for the party’s 10th, and perhaps most consequential, debate of the 2020 primary season.
Bloomberg was the focus last week for his highly anticipated debut, but after a bad performance that froze his momentum, the knives are out for 78-year-old Sanders.
The night marks a major moment in Sanders’ political career. After spending decades as an outside agitator accustomed to attacking the party establishment, he is suddenly the one on defence as the Democratic establishment fears he could build an insurmountable delegate lead as soon as next week.
Sanders’ handling of the pressure could be crucial in determining whether he stays at the top of the Democratic pack.
Sanders said he expected the attacks. But he still seemed to be adjusting to his new status. “It is a little funny to find myself as the so-called frontrunner,” he said.
Biden is looking to make a big impression in South Carolina, where he was long viewed as the unquestioned frontrunner because of his support from black voters.
Campaigning in the state the day before the debate, he predicted he would win “by plenty” on Saturday.
Sanders’ senior adviser Jeff Weaver said there was an “air of desperation” to the fresh attacks on his candidate.
One candidate who has not yet taken Sanders on directly is Elizabeth Warren. Though she shares many of Sanders’ liberal policies and could benefit if he were to stumble, she has been reluctant to tangle with him throughout the campaign.
Sanders may benefit most from the sheer number of candidates still in the race. They are still fighting among themselves, and splitting up the anti-Sanders vote, to emerge as the strongest alternative to him.