Bernie Sanders went into Tuesday night’s debate in South Carolina as the undisputed front-runner for the Democratic nomination. And, from the jump, he got treated that way by his opponents: the other candidates kept trying to score points at his expense, box him into rhetorical corners, or contrast themselves against him or his record. But there were six of them, and one of him, and the dynamic that has defined the past few weeks of the race—all of the non-Sanders candidates being unable to claim the mantle of strongest non-Sanders candidate—played out onstage. There were simply too many voices, and not enough time, which led to long stretches of muddy argument and several episodes of unintelligible shouting. The moderators kept cutting the candidates off, begging them to wrap up and cede the floor.
The debate began with a question for Sanders, about how he would make the case for his progressive economic proposals in the context of a growing American economy. “The economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg and other billionaires,” Sanders said, glancing toward Michael Bloomberg, who had been assigned one of the outermost podia. “Half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck.” For a moment, it seemed that we were in for a reprise of the debate that took place a week ago, in Nevada, when the candidates all seemed to visibly delight in pillorying Bloomberg, who has been spending unprecedented amounts of his own money to fuel a late entry into the race. But attention soon moved off the billionaire ex-mayor.
Notably, it was Elizabeth Warren who refocussed attention on Sanders. “Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better President than Bernie,” she said. “Bernie and I both want to see universal health care, but Bernie’s plan doesn’t explain how to get there.” Other candidates appeared eager to get their shots in on Sanders—“Imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump,” Pete Buttigieg declared a few moments later—but Warren’s heart didn’t seem to be in it. Since the summer, she has struggled to find words to make the case for why the progressive base of the party should go with her instead of Sanders, and she didn’t find better words for her case on Tuesday night.
Everyone else got his or her moment against the Vermont senator. Joe Biden questioned Sanders’s record on guns. Amy Klobuchar criticized him for offering policy proposals that “sound good on bumper stickers.” Buttigieg attacked him for not being willing to get rid of the filibuster in the Senate. (“How are we going to deliver a revolution if you won’t even support a rule change?” he said.) Even Tom Steyer, who at times in this campaign has seemed like something of a Sanders fanboy, declared, “Bernie Sanders’s analysis is right. The difference is I don’t like his solutions.” For the most part, Sanders seemed untroubled by the criticism. He yelled plenty, but yelling is his default register at debates. And time worked to his benefit again and again. Even when he didn’t offer his best retort—when the rest of the stage interrogated him on the cost of his Medicare for All plan, or when he was challenged for his remarks that Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba delivered some positive social services—the moderators were never far off from declaring a new topic.
The next debate is scheduled for March 15th, in Phoenix, Arizona. Twenty-six states and territories will have voted by then. It is a safe bet that Sanders will be in Phoenix. Who else will join him there seems much harder to say. It won’t be all seven of the candidates who appeared on Tuesday. The Democrats’ wide-open 2020 primary is finally ending. Someone may yet emerge as the anti-Sanders candidate, but it hasn’t happened yet. And time is running out.