CHARLESTON, S.C. — One candidate accused Sen. Bernard Sanders of being Russia’s choice for the Democratic presidential nomination. Another hinted he has the blood of mass-shooting victims on his hands based on past pro-gun votes.
Fearing Mr. Sanders is poised to run away with the nomination, his fellow candidates took their best shots in a debate Tuesday, hoping to convince his growing number of supporters that he is political suicide for Democrats.
But they also swarmed former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, fearing the billionaire is too well-positioned to be the Sanders alternative in next week’s Super Tuesday primaries, where the nomination could be settled.
“I don’t care how much money Mayor Bloomberg has. The core of the Democratic Party will never trust him,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has made taking out Mr. Bloomberg a particular mission. “The fact that he cannot win the trust of the core of the Democratic Party means he is the riskiest candidate.”
Ms. Warren put a point on her attack, saying Mr. Bloomberg once told a female employee to get an abortion.
Mr. Bloomberg heatedly denied that and then spent most of his time firing at Mr. Sanders, who he said would be a gift to President Trump as an opponent.
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“That’s why Russia is helping you get elected,” he said, referring to reports that Mr. Sanders’ campaign has been briefed by U.S. officials on a Russian-backed effort to boost his candidacy.
Mr. Sanders countered that would be a bad bet for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me, you’re not going to interfere in any more elections,” he said.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden also piled on Mr. Sanders, saying his votes against gun control and against allowing lawsuits against gun manufacturers may have made it easier for Dylann Roof, a self-described white supremacist, to obtain the weapon used to kill nine black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015.
“I’m not saying he’s responsible for the nine deaths, but that man would not have been able to get that weapon with the waiting period, had [it] been what I [suggested],” Mr. Biden said.
He later said, “150 million people have been killed since 2007 when Bernie voted to exempt the gun manufacturers from liability.” That number would be close to half the entire U.S. population. In fact, the number of gun deaths since then is in the hundreds of thousands.
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Mr. Sanders called his past gun votes mistakes and touted his current D- grade from the National Rifle Association as proof that he has changed.
The Vermont socialist also found himself defending his recent comments praising Cuba’s record on education. When the audience booed, he said his comments were no different than former President Barack Obama, who also had praised the communist regime’s schools.
Mr. Biden said that was an injustice to Mr. Obama: “He did not in any way suggest there was anything positive about the Cuban government.”
The debate, hosted by CBS News, took place at the Gaillard Center, across the street from the church widely known as Mother Emanuel.
South Carolina holds its primary Saturday, marking the first big test of candidates’ popularity with black voters, the most reliable Democratic voting bloc.
Mr. Biden made a direct appeal to them, vowing to find a black woman he could name to the Supreme Court.
South Carolina’s primary is followed three days later by Super Tuesday, when one-third of all pledged delegates to the nominating convention are at stake.
The debate didn’t produce any clear winner among those vying to be the chief Sanders alternative — which is exactly the scenario Democratic politicos fear. As long as the less liberal candidates fracture the field, Mr. Sanders can rack up wins on Super Tuesday, giving him what could be an insurmountable lead in delegates to the nominating convention.
Mr. Bloomberg did improve on his performance from last week, where he stumbled for answers and was eviscerated by Ms. Warren. He was better prepared Tuesday and called some of her attacks misguided and others “sideshows.”
He held up his record in New York, saying he helped shepherd the city after the 2001 terrorist attacks, ushered in better schools and better public health, and was elected three times by a liberal electorate.
“I have the experience, I have the resources, and I have the record,” he said.
Mr. Bloomberg told Democratic voters to be wary of backing Mr. Sanders, saying no moderate Republican will be able to back a democratic socialist.
Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said nominating Mr. Sanders would squander a chance to beat Mr. Trump and would cost Democrats the opportunity to win control of the Senate and would lose control of the House.
“You might want to check with the people who actually turned the House blue, 40 Democrats, who are not running on your platform. They are running away from your platform as fast as they can,” he told Mr. Sanders.
Mr. Sanders insisted he is electable. He said of the past 50 polls testing him in a head-to-head matchup with Mr. Trump, 47 show him winning.
Ms. Warren took a different approach, praising Mr. Sanders’ ideas but saying he is unable to get any of it done. She said she is the one to meld the liberal policies with an ability to pass legislation.
“We need a president who is going to dig in and do the hard work and actually get it done. Progressives have got one shot, and we need to spend it with a leader who is going to get things done,” she said.
She pointed to her “Medicare for All” health care plan, a derivative of Mr. Sanders’ plan, as an example. She said she took his idea and worked out the details to make it doable.
“I dug in. I did the work. And then Bernie’s team trashed me for it,” she said.
Mr. Biden was thought to be the strongest alternative to Mr. Sanders entering the race, but he has run an uninspiring campaign, failing to energize voters. South Carolina is supposed to be the firewall for Mr. Obama’s former vice president, thanks to its largely black Democratic-primary electorate. But polls show his lead has been slipping.
Mr. Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota had decent showings in Iowa and New Hampshire but have struggled to grow their support as the contests move from the early states.
Ms. Warren has fallen well short of expectations in the opening states, though her recent debate performances have given her some new life.
Mr. Bloomberg isn’t the only billionaire in the race. The other, Tom Steyer, has spent lavishly in South Carolina, earning enough support in polling to make the stage for Tuesday’s debate.
Yet it’s Mr. Sanders who has combined money, organization and messaging, building a national donor network and a durable voting coalition of far-left activists and young voters.
He leads the delegate chase with 45. Mr. Buttigieg has 25, Mr. Biden has 15, Ms. Warren has eight, and Ms. Klobuchar has seven.
Democratic presidential candidates must collect 1,991 delegates to declare victory on the first ballot at the national convention.
In South Carolina, the Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Mr. Biden leading the race with 26.8% support, followed by Mr. Sanders at 21.7%, Mr. Steyer at 14.7% and Mr. Buttigieg at 9.8%.
South Carolina voters have a good track record of tapping the party’s eventual nominee. Recent winners include Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 1992, Al Gore in 2000, Mr. Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The one recent Democrat to lose South Carolina yet win the nomination was John F. Kerry in 2004. He lost to John Edwards, who was a bit of a favorite son, having been born in the state and serving as senator from neighboring North Carolina.
• Alex Swoyer reported from Washington.