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Ahead Of Saturday's Primary, Democrats Debate In South Carolina


The Democratic presidential candidates had a wild, messy debate last night. Here they are on CBS.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: Let's talk about it.

BERNIE SANDERS: First of all...


AMY KLOBUCHAR: Bernie, I was talking about...


KLOBUCHAR: 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.

KING: South Carolina's primary is on Saturday, and then three days later, it's Super Tuesday, and people in 14 states are going to vote. So what did last night's debate mean for the course of the primary? NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid is on the line from South Carolina. Hey, Asma.


KING: So the tone last night was pretty rough. What do you think was going on?

KHALID: So the tone, to me, underscored the urgency of the situation. You know, you have a lot of candidates who are at an inflection point at this moment. They feel that they need to distinguish themselves from the pack, you know, potentially boost a faltering campaign or in some way gain some ground against Bernie Sanders, who at this point is the front-runner. So really, you know, more than any one interaction, it was the bickering, the crosstalk, the shouting, the rolling the eyes that, to me, suggests how much anxiety some of these candidates feel right now.

KING: The other candidates did go after Bernie Sanders, which, as you said, we expected because he's the front-runner. But what did it look like when you - as you watched that?

KHALID: So right off the bat, we saw Elizabeth Warren try to draw this contrast between herself and him. They are both self-identified progressives, but she cited her ability to get things done.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Bernie and I both wanted to help rein in Wall Street. In 2008, we both got our chance. But I dug in. I fought the big banks. I built the coalitions, and I won. Bernie and I both want to see universal health care. But Bernie's plan doesn't explain how to get there, doesn't show how we're going to get enough allies into it and doesn't show enough about how we're going to pay for it.

KHALID: And so, you know, she was not the only candidate to go after Bernie Sanders. There was this moment where he was questioned about his support for Fidel Castro's authoritarian regime. You know, he says that he has criticized that regime in Cuba, but he also praised the Cuban government's literacy programs.


SANDERS: Occasionally, it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy, and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world - in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran and when dictatorships, whether it is the Chinese or the Cubans, do something good, you acknowledge that. But you don't have to trade love letters with them.

KHALID: So, you know, Noel, I will say that he was trying to point out there that his, you know, sort of respect for some of the things that the Cuban government has done is nothing like President Trump's support for certain authoritarian regimes in exchanging letters, say, with the North Korean leader. But I will say that I don't know that these attacks were all that effective. It is clear that the candidates see Bernie Sanders as the front-runner and therefore they targeted him.

KING: The stakes, Asma, are possibly highest for Joe Biden. He has said he will win South Carolina. He will win it big. This morning, not long ago, he got a big endorsement that he's been waiting on from Representative Jim Clyburn. Let's listen to Clyburn here.


JIM CLYBURN: I want the public to know that I'm voting for Joe Biden. South Carolinians should be voting for Joe Biden.

KING: Why is that endorsement so important?

KHALID: So, you know, Clyburn is perhaps the most influential politician in Democratic Party politics here. And he had said that this morning, you know, that he knew personally he was going to vote for Biden for a long time, but he felt the urgency to make that decision public. And his argument, you know, that he's making to voters he says is that I've known Joe Biden for a while. We've known Joe Biden but that Joe Biden also knows us. It was a really emotional speech effect. In fact, if you hear some background noise, I'm sorry. We've just boarded actually a bus with the Biden campaign. But we were there at that endorsement.

KING: One last thing, Asma, before we let you continue on your bus ride. Race came up a lot last night, right?

KHALID: That's right. And we heard some, you know, questions to specifically Mike Bloomberg and the controversy around the stop-and-frisk policy. That was, you know, the policing strategy that disproportionately targeted minorities. It's a program that he has apologized for, but it's a program that he was questioned about. And I will say that the degree to which we heard the candidates talk about race was also a recognition that they are aware of the significance of the African American electorate here in South Carolina. You know, you had multiple candidates name drop James Clyburn. You had Joe Biden suggest that if he were to be elected as president, he wanted to make sure that he appoints an African American woman to the Supreme Court. There's a clear recognition that whatever candidate wins South Carolina needs a lot of support from black voters.

KING: NPR's Asma Khalid, thank you.

KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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