In the days since Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders decisively won the Nevada caucuses, the political commentariat has been treating him not merely as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination but as the presumptive nominee — with the socialist's supporters ecstatic and just about everyone else in a full-on panic. But Tuesday night's Charleston, South Carolina debate showed that this consensus formed prematurely. Sanders might be the frontrunner, but he's got a long way to go before he locks down the nomination.
Which means that the just-slightly-less-panicked narrative that prevailed in the week leading up to the Nevada vote was the one rooted more firmly in the political reality of the present. The Democratic field remains deeply, chaotically divided. Sanders may be in the lead, but this is to a large extent a function of the inability of any other single candidate to consolidate support from those voters who aren't sold on making a left-wing non-Democrat into the party's standard-bearer and choice to take on, and hopefully take down, Donald Trump.
On Tuesday night, that lack of unity in the party was on vivid display. Sanders had a fine night, but not a great one. He was placed on the defensive at various points, as pretty much everyone else on stage went after him on whether a man who's proposing trillions of dollars in spending and has a record of saying positive things about Fidel Castro's Cuba could beat Trump. No one managed to land a body blow, but Sanders did nothing much to help himself in South Carolina's primary this Saturday or in the numerous upcoming contests to be held on Super Tuesday.
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And in keeping with the shape of the race over the past several months, none of the alternatives distinguished themselves either — at least not enough to change its dynamic.
Former vice president Joe Biden is leading in most of the polls in South Carolina, largely because of strong support from African-American voters. He didn't do anything in the debate to alter that in a negative direction, but it's unlikely he did much to help himself either. Biden sounded like he always does in these settings: irritable, angry, often verbally and cognitively incoherent, overly eager to name-check Barack Obama, and prone to insisting he's sponsored bills to do everything his rivals propose. It was standard Biden, and it's hard to imagine anyone changing their mind about him on the basis of what happened in Charleston.
Former New York City mayor and media mogul Michael Bloomberg, meanwhile, had a much better night than he did last week in Las Vegas. He again sounded awkward and defensive when confronted about various issues in his past — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren again worked to eviscerate him about his use of non-disclosure agreements in settlements with female employees at his company — but unlike in the last debate, he spent the bulk of the evening answering questions about policy, and sounded confident and competent doing so. This was especially true when he pivoted from a question about his mayoral efforts to combat obesity to a discussion of fighting the coronavirus — the evening's first mention of of the pandemic or its negative impact on the stock market this week.
Warren also had a solid night, displaying her toughness in going after both Bloomberg and Sanders, and speaking passionately and thoughtfully about her own agenda and presidential ambitions. But then former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg also did well, effectively skewering Sanders on the electability question and several of his many wildly ambitious policy proposals. Buttigieg also wisely avoided picking pointless and mutually diminishing fights with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, as he did in last week's debate. Klobuchar's performance was steady as well. She didn't have any breakout moments, but she was her usual self: proud of her Midwestern pedigree, slightly wonky in her comments on policy, and firmly committed to centrism and working pragmatically with (the very few) moderates who remain on the other side of the aisle.
And there lies the problem. No one broke away from the pack. No one tanked. The frontrunner did fine but not great. Those who struggled last time did better. Everyone was very on brand. Where does that leave us as we head into a dense week of primaries that will end with more than a third of the delegates pledged to candidates? Quite possibly with Biden winning South Carolina and several states in the South, Sanders winning California and a handful of other contests, Bloomberg winning Florida and Virginia, Warren winning her home state of Massachusetts, Klobuchar winning her home state of Minnesota, and billionaire Tom Steyer (who also had a fine night) picking up a few delegates in South Carolina, where he's in double digits in some polls. Heck, maybe even Mayor Pete will eke out a win somewhere.
In short, the race remains a scrum, with a contested convention a real possibility. On Tuesday night, the possibility of such an outcome increased quite a lot.
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