Democratic presidential contenders are facing what could be their last chance to halt an ascendant Sen. Bernie Sanders during the presidential debate in South Carolina on Tuesday.
The event in Charleston, hosted by CBS News, is likely to be a rowdy affair.
That was the case during the last debate, held in Las Vegas last Wednesday, which showcased an energized Sen. Elizabeth Warren going after Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, over his record on race and the allegations of sexism that have dogged his cash rich bid.
Warren's performance juiced her campaign with a flood of new contributions from online donors but did little to boost her in the polls or in the Nevada caucuses, where she came in fourth. Bloomberg, though, was badly damaged by the Massachusetts senator's attacks.
He may be better prepared to withstand the incoming fire during round two. His campaign aims to confront Sanders with attacks drawn from opposition research into the Vermont senator's record.
Indeed, Sanders is likely to face scrutiny from a united front of Democrats. The contenders on stage also include former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who is returning to the debates after failing to meet the qualifications for the last one.
The debate will kick off at 8 p.m. ET and is expected to last just over two hours. It comes four days before Saturday's South Carolina primary, the last nominating contest next week's crucial Super Tuesday contests.
Sanders has zoomed in the polls in recent weeks and is expected to rout his competitors on Super Tuesday unless they manage to change the trajectory of the race. That could give him an unstoppable lead in pledged delegates.
Sanders' rivals have escalated their attacks since the Nevada caucuses on Saturday. Sanders dominated the contest with a double-digit lead over his nearest competitor, Biden, carrying both liberal and moderate Democrats and earning an estimated 70% support among Latinos, according to researchers at the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA.
Biden, who has counted on a strong showing in South Carolina, especially among its powerful African American bloc, to resuscitate his campaign, may have the most at stake.
The former vice president has gone on the offensive since Nevada, critiquing Sanders' praise of a literacy campaign pursued by the Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro. Biden's campaign has also aired a television ad with allegations that Sanders sought to challenge then-President Barack Obama in the 2012 primaries, which Sanders has denied.
Biden was seen as the race's front-runner until votes started rolling in. He finished in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire before taking second place in Nevada. Bloomberg's entrance into the race in November cut his support, particularly among black voters.
"I'm a Democrat for a simple reason," Biden said Saturday as Nevada's results came in, seeking to favorably contrast himself with Sanders, an independent, and Bloomberg, a billionaire former Republican. "I ain't a socialist, I ain't a plutocrat, I'm a Democrat."
Bloomberg has been devoting his nearly exclusive focus to Sanders. Ahead of the debate in South Carolina, the billionaire was preparing a media onslaught against the front-runner.
He has hammered Sanders' mixed record on gun control, dating to the early 1990s, as well as reports that the Russian government is interfering in the race to boost Sanders. Sanders has denounced the alleged Russian efforts and publicly warned Moscow to stay our of the race.
On guns, Sanders voted against national background check legislation in 1993 and in favor of a bill to immunize gun manufacturers from certain lawsuits a decade later. Those votes dogged his 2016 primary run against Hillary Clinton.
This cycle, Sanders has said he has evolved on the issue. His 2020 platform calls for strict gun control measures. In a show of credibility, several of the co-founders of the youth-led gun safety organization March for Our Lives endorsed him on Thursday.
The debate will be an important test of Bloomberg's ability to go head to head with his rivals after his lackluster debate performance last week.
He will need a strong showing to gain momentum. Bloomberg has spent more than half a billion dollars of his own personal fortune on a campaign strategy dedicated to the Super Tuesday states.
But in state polls conducted ahead of the debate, he was trailing Sanders in all five of the biggest Super Tuesday states, collectively worth almost half the about 2,000 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.