In the first Democratic presidential debate since Sen. Bernie Sanders earned a big target on his back, Democratic candidates jumped into an often chaotic and uncomfortable fray in Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday night.
Sanders took shots from his rivals early and often after weeks of strong polling and a series of key wins in early nominating states, including a landslide Nevada caucus win on Saturday. But none of the seven candidates stood out in the debate, at times a choppy affair as White House hopefuls interrupted each other and talked over the CBS News moderators, untouched by opponents' venom.
It was the 10th overall debate. In addition to Sanders, the candidates on stage were former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, billionaire Tom Steyer, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Those six candidates tried to direct attention to Sanders, with Bloomberg pointing to the Vermont senator's vote against the Brady Bill, which mandated the establishment of a background check and stricter gun control measures.
Bloomberg, who took a beating in last week's Democratic debate, appeared more steady on Tuesday. After a widely panned performance during his first time on stage with his rivals, the billionaire businessman responded to criticism about his record on policing, alleged sexual harassment and donating to Republican political candidates with what seemed like more prepared remarks.
Tensions were high on Tuesday, as candidates used their last chance to sell themselves on a national stage before the crucial South Carolina primary on Saturday. Biden maintained a slight lead in South Carolina with 27% of support, according to a poll from NBC News released on Monday. Sanders trailed him with 23%.
The results of the primary could determine the fate of some of the Democratic heavyweights in the race.
Here are the night's top moments:
Biden predicted victory in South Carolina on Saturday when he was pressed by the moderators on his sinking poll numbers in the state.
"I will win South Carolina," he asserted when asked if he would end his candidacy if he doesn't prevail in the state.
The former vice president touted his record in South Carolina with the black community, saying he has "created jobs for people. The people know me. My entire career has been wrapped up in dealing with civil rights and liberties."
"I don't expect anything. I'm here to ask. I'm here to earn. But folks, I intend to win South Carolina and I will win the African American vote here in South Carolina," Biden added.
Biden's lead over Sanders has been slipping in South Carolina, where the former vice president has been relying on support among black voters.
If Sanders beats Biden, it will be the Vermont senator's fourth straight popular vote victory. Coming just days before Super Tuesday, that could give him a boost toward an insurmountable delegate lead.
Buttigieg told billionaires to donate to his campaign following a spat with Sanders over the former South Bend mayor's campaign contributions.
Sanders, who has built his campaign on promoting wealth inequality and dismissing the ultra-wealthy, went after Buttigieg for accepting contributions from 50 billionaires. "I'll tell you, Pete, what the American people want," he said. "They don't want candidates to be running to billionaires for huge amounts of money."
In response, Buttigieg downplayed contributions from the billionaire donors, saying they make up a small portion of his campaign funds.
But immediately following his clarification, Buttigieg used the opportunity to ask on live television for additional donations, most notably from other billionaires.
"In fact I shouldn't miss the opportunity, if you're watching right now and you support my campaign, go to PeteForAmerica.com and chip in. And if you're watching right now and you're a billionaire, I will raise your taxes," he quipped. "But if you'd like to defeat Donald Trump, please go to PeteForAmerica.com and donate the legal maximum of $2,800."
Warren attacked Bloomberg over an accusation from a former employee who claimed the media mogul quipped "kill it" when she was discussing being pregnant.
Bloomberg flatly denied ever saying any such thing. "I'm sorry if she heard what she thought she heard," he said.
Bloomberg also grew testy over Warren's continued pressure on him to overturn nondisclosure agreements for all former Bloomberg LP employees who alleged misconduct at the company. He argued that he had already released the three women who claimed that he personally said offensive things in the workplace.
Bloomberg said he was "probably wrong to make the jokes — I don't remember what they were. ... If it bothered them, I was wrong, and I apologize for that. But we went back 40 years, and we could only find three cases where women said they were uncomfortable. Nobody accused me of doing anything other than making a comment or two."
Halfway through the debate, Bloomberg segued from a question about New York's trans fat ban to attacking President Donald Trump over his administration's response to coronavirus.
"If you have good public health then you can do things. You read about the [coronavirus] and what's really happening here is the president fired the pandemic specialist in this country two years ago, so there's nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing," Bloomberg said. "He's defunded Centers for Disease Control, so we don't have the organization we need. This is a very serious thing. As you see, the stock market is falling apart and people are very worried, and they should be. This is a very serious thing, and we don't have anybody to respond."
In 2018, Trump fired the majority of the White House global health emergency team. The spread of coronavirus outside of China, and warnings this week from CDC experts, sent markets tanking on Monday and Tuesday.
Klobuchar dodged a question on whether she'd close borders to Americans who have been exposed to the virus to prevent an outbreak in the United States, instead advocating for treatment for those people. Then she gave out the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an answer to Buttigieg's plug for donations to his campaign.
"I'm not going to give my website right now. I'm going to give the CDC's website," Klobuchar said, calling the situation "serious."
Immediately following the comments from the Democratic candidates who said the White House has not responded well to the outbreak in China, Trump tweeted that the "CDC and my Administration are doing a GREAT job of handling Coronavirus."
Biden scored laughs with his response to a question on whether he'd meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
He was in the middle of detailing his plan when he cut himself off, asking the moderators why he was abiding by the time constraints for responses when no other candidate did. Candidates had run over time with several responses.
"I would make it clear to China: We are going to continue to move closer to make sure that we can in fact prevent China, prevent North Korea, from launching missiles, to take them down and if we don't — why am I stopping. No one else stops," Biden said.
"There's my Catholic school training," he added, shaking his head.
"Vice President Biden, you're a gentleman," one moderator remarked, but the comment did not satisfy Biden.
"Yeah, gentleman don't get very well-treated up here," he quipped.
-CNBC's Tucker Higgins contributed to this report from Charleston, South Carolina.