Sanders, at Dem debate, faces unprecedented scrutiny from struggling rivals

Bernie Sanders faced quick criticism in Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, as the self-described democratic socialist for the first time is considered the race’s undisputed frontrunner — even as he has rankled several members of his own party with some head-turning comments on communism in Cuba.

Seconds into the event, Sanders downplayed historic-low unemployment numbers by saying the economy was only going well for “people like” former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg — prompting Bloomberg to quickly bring up recent reports that Russia is working to help Sanders’ campaign.

“I think that Donald Trump thinks it would be better if he’s president — I do not think so,” Bloomberg said. “Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States. And that’s why Russia is helping you get elected, so you’ll lose to him.”

Sanders shot back by referencing Bloomberg’s past support for Chinese President President Xi Jinping.

“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight — I wonder why,” Sanders quipped later, after Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, took him on as well.

Buttigieg separately challenged Bloomberg over his past stop-and-frisk policy, before employing intersectionalist rhetoric: “There’s seven white people on this stage talking about racial justice,” none of whom have the “lived experience” of feeling bigotry in their day-to-day life, he said.

The flareup came after a day of simmering tensions. With the notable exception of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, all of the other prominent candidates debating in South Carolina savaged Sanders in the hours leading up to the 8 p.m. EST affair. Tuesday’s forum comes just four days before South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary and one week before more than a dozen states vote on Super Tuesday.

Former Vice President Joe Biden accused Sanders of trying to undermine President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection. Buttigieg highlighted Sanders’ call for a government-financed health care system as an example of his “polarization.”

Former Bloomberg and his surrogates were especially aggressive — with Bloomberg senior advisor Tim O’Brien even bringing up Sanders’ past writings on rape fantasies live on CNN. (Bloomberg, who has begun spending on a massive media blitz against Sanders, spent extra time preparing for the showdown after a weak performance in last week’s debate.)

Sanders also drew renewed fire for doubling down on comments praising Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s “literacy program,” saying it was a positive outcome from the violent Cuban Revolution that literacy rates quickly rose.

“We are very clear in the Democratic party that we speak out against brutal dictatorships like Castro,” Democratic National Committee (DNC) spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa told Fox News earlier Tuesday, before encouraging candidates like Sanders to visit Florida and speak with Cuban refugees. Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell was more direct.

“As the first South American immigrant member of Congress who proudly represents thousands of Cuban Americans, I find Senator Bernie Sanders’ comments on Castro’s Cuba absolutely unacceptable,” Mucarsel-Powell wrote on Twitter. “The Castro regime murdered and jailed dissidents, and caused unspeakable harm to too many South Florida families. To this day, it remains an authoritarian regime that oppresses its people, subverts the free press, and stifles a free society.”

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Other have highlighted Sanders’ previous remarks that were highly critical of immigration: “If poverty is increasing, and wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people coming into this country as guest workers,” Sanders had told CNN years ago.

The stage is set for a Democratic presidential primary debate, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The stage is set for a Democratic presidential primary debate, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Five Bloomberg supporters, all current or former black elected officials, blasted Sanders’ record on gun control as well as other priorities for the black community on Tuesday.

“Too often, Bernie Sanders has been on the wrong side of history, missing in action or unable to make progress on virtually every issue for black voters,” New York Rep. Gregory Meeks told reporters, predicting that viewers would “see a 180-degree shift tonight” from Bloomberg after his lackluster showing in last week’s Democratic debate.

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 now the knives are out for the 78-year-old Vermont senator.

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The night marks a major moment in Sanders’ political career. After spending decades as an outside agitator accustomed to attacking the party establishment, he’s suddenly the one on defense as the Democratic establishment fears he could build an insurmountable delegate lead as soon as next week.

Only Warren has resisted attacking Sanders, her ideological ally. The Massachusetts senator has instead trained her focus on Bloomberg, whom she savaged last week on the debate stage and on the campaign trail leading up to Tuesday’s meeting.

Also a factor: Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who has borrowed heavily from his personal fortune to fuel a strong push in South Carolina, where he’s threatening to peel away some of Biden’s support with state’s black voters. Rivals Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are also fighting to win over moderates while decrying Sanders’ chief policy priorities.

Sanders’ handling of the pressure could be crucial in determining whether he stays at the top of the Democratic pack. During a town hall Monday night televised on CNN, 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 front-runner,” he said.

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Biden is looking to make a big impression in South Carolina, where he was long viewed as the unquestioned front-runner 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

The stage is set for a Democratic presidential primary debate, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The stage is set for a Democratic presidential primary debate, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Having finished on top in three consecutive primary contests — including a tie in Iowa — Sanders is eyeing a knockout blow, however. He has shifted new staff into the state from Nevada, expanded his South Carolina advertising and added events to his schedule.

Sanders senior adviser Jeff Weaver said there was an “air of desperation” to the fresh attacks on his candidate.

“You’ve got candidates, you’ve got super PACs, all piling on to stop Bernie Sanders,” Weaver said. “They know he has the momentum in the race.”

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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.

Heading into the debate, there was no sign that any of those candidates was close to getting out.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who finished in a distant fifth or sixth place in Nevada over the weekend, announced plans to launch a $4.2 million ad buy across several Super Tuesday states.

A pro-Warren super PAC was also adding television advertising in seven Super Tuesday states, including Alabama, California, Minnesota and Virginia.

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Sanders was also in a dispute with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a group comprised of Jewish Americans which advocates for strong U.S.-Israel relations. Sanders said he would skip the group’s conference and essentially boycott the organization because he was concerned about the event giving airtime to “leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, called that characterization “offensive” and “irresponsible.”

Fox News’ Andrew O’Reilly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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