Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate was chaotic and messy, underscoring the continuing lack of clarity over which candidate could emerge as the nominee to take on Donald Trump in November’s election.

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, a self declared Democratic socialist considered the current frontrunner after his win in Nevada last week, found himself the main target of attacks from more centrist contenders, but was closely followed by billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was pummelled again for his past statements on women and support for Republicans.

Former mayor Pete Buttigieg warned that Sanders, who is considered the most progressive of the candidates, would be a risky and divisive candidate if he were the nominee to go up against Trump, as senator Elizabeth Warren argued that “progressive ideas are popular ideas” and that nominating Bloomberg, a billionaire and centrist, would doom Democrats’ chances of taking back the White House.

The debate often descended into crosstalk, and even occasional shouting. It was more common for candidates to go over their allotted time than stick to it, and moderators were criticised for their lack of control over proceedings. At one point former vice-president Joe Biden groused to the moderators, “I note how you cut me off all the time but I’m not going to be quiet anymore, OK?”

The unruly shape of the debate was not lost on the candidates or the campaigns. Ahead of the debate, Buttigieg’s campaign distributed a memo to donors arguing that “this is going to be a long race”. And on stage, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar warned the lengthy battle could hurt Democrats no, matter who wins the nomination.

“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,” she warned.

The Trump campaign was quick to release a statement criticising the debate as a “hot mess” and “further evidence that not one of these candidates is serious or can stand toe-to-toe with President Trump”.

Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, tweeted: “When we could hear over the crosstalk, we heard Democrats singing the same old song in support of socialism.”

Yet the persistent division suggests that regardless of whoever wins the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday, and perhaps even whichever candidate comes out of the crucial Super Tuesday contests next week with the most delegates, the 2020 Democratic primary contest could remain jumbled.

And as long as the Democratic primary remains a fight between such different, competing visions for the future of the party and country, Sanders will continue to be a ripe target for his rivals. And he knows it.

“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight. I wonder why,” Sanders said at one point during the debate.

Recent polling has shown Sanders creeping up on former vice-president Joe Biden in the South Carolina primary on Saturday, a state that Biden and his campaign have said he would win easily because of his record as Barack Obama’s vice-president and his deep ties to the African American community there.

Perhaps in a sign of how serious a threat Sanders is to Biden’s lead in the state, the former vice-president criticized Sanders relentlessly on his Medicare-for-All healthcare plan and position on gun control. Biden also made sure to hit Sanders over accusations that the Vermont senator once toyed with the idea of challenging then-President Barack Obama during the 2012 presidential primary race.

“He said we should primary Barack Obama, someone should, and, in fact, the president was weak and our administration was in fact not up to it,” Biden warned early on in the Tuesday evening debate.

Sanders has repeatedly denied that he ever considered challenging Obama.

Sanders even fielded attacks from Warren, the most candidate in the field after him. Early in the Democratic primary race Warren and Sanders had refused to attack each other in any serious way. But Tuesday night’s debate showed those days were gone.

Warren, like her rivals, bashed Sanders for offering proposals that his critics say are unrealistic.

“You know, Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better president than Bernie,” Warren said. “And the reason for that is that getting a progressive agenda enacted is going to be really hard, and it’s going to take someone who digs into the details to make it happen.”

Billionaires also remain the bogeymen in the primary and Bloomberg, who catapulted into contention by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into his own campaign, was a popular punching bag for Warren and the rest of the field.

“Mayor Bloomberg has a solid and strong and enthusiastic base of support. The problem is, they’re all billionaires,” Sanders said, sparking boos from the audience.

But “electability” – ie who is most likely to win in a contest against Trump – remains more important to Democratic primary voters than billionaire bogeymen or the likelihood of Medicare-for-All becoming law.



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