By Trevor Hunnicutt and Jarrett Renshaw
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – Democratic presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders came under attack from his rivals on Tuesday as seven candidates competing to take on U.S. President Donald Trump in November debated in Charleston, South Carolina.
Here are quotes from the televised event ahead of the state’s primary election on Saturday and next week’s Super Tuesday contests in 14 states:
“Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better president than Bernie,” the U.S. senator from Massachusetts said. “And the reason for that is that getting a progressive agenda enacted is going to be really hard, and it’s going to take someone who digs into the details to make it happen.
“We need a president who is going to dig in and actually do the hard work,” she said. “I dug in, I did the work and then Bernie’s team trashed me for it.”
She also reprised her criticism from the last debate of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who has poured more than $500 million into his campaign.
“I don’t care how much money Mayor Bloomberg has. The core of the Democratic Party will never trust him. He has not earned their trust. I will. And the fact that he cannot earn the trust of the core of the Democratic Party means he is the riskiest candidate standing on this stage.”
The former vice president pointed out Sanders’ voting against the 1993 Brady Bill, which imposed mandatory background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases.
“Bernie voted five times against the Brady Bill,” Biden said. Referring to the 2015 mass shooting at a church near the debate venue, Biden added: “I’m not saying (Sanders is) responsible for the nine deaths, but that man would not have been able to get that weapon with the waiting period.”
On the African-American vote he has been hoping will score him a win in South Carolina’s primary on Saturday, Biden said: “I’ve worked like the devil to earn the vote of the African-American community, not just here but across the country.
“The people know me. My entire career has been wrapped up in dealing with civil rights and civil liberties. I don’t expect anything. I plan to earn the vote. I’m here to ask. I’m here to earn it. But, folks, I intend to win in South Carolina, and I will win the African-American vote here in South Carolina.”
“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 lose to him,” Bloomberg said to Sanders, referring to last week’s report that Russia was trying to help the senator from Vermont win the Democratic nomination.
Bloomberg warned of dire circumstances for the Democratic Party if Sanders became the 2020 nominee.
“If you keep on going, we will elect Bernie, Bernie will lose to Donald Trump, and Donald Trump and the House (of Representatives) and the Senate and some of the statehouses will all go red and then, between gerrymandering and appointing judges, for the next 20 or 30 years we are going to live with this catastrophe.”
The independent senator from Vermont hit back against the attacks on his electability, noting that opinion poll after opinion poll showed him being able to beat Trump nationally.
“And if you want to beat Trump, what you’re going to need is an unprecedented grassroots movement of black and white and Latino, Native American and Asian, people who are standing up and fighting for justice. That’s what our movement is about.”
Responding to an intelligence report that Russia was trying to help his campaign, Sanders said, “And let me tell Mr. Putin, who interfered in the 2016 election … hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me, you’re not going to interfere in any more American elections.”
He said the biggest misconception about him was that his ideas are radical. “They’re not,” he said.
“I will tell you what the Russians want. They don’t have a political party. They want chaos, and chaos is what is coming our way,” said the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. “If you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump. Think about what that will be like for this country.”
Buttigieg also took a shot at Sanders for what he said were the shifting costs of the senator’s ambitious Medicare for All plan.
“I can tell you exactly how it all adds up. It adds up to four more years of Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House, and the inability to get the Senate into Democratic hands. The time has come to stop acting like the presidency is the only thing that matters. Not only is this a way to get Donald Trump re-elected, we got a House to worry about, we got a Senate to worry about.”
The billionaire environmentalist warned that the Democratic Party is being threatened by polarizing candidates, alluding to Sanders, a democratic socialist, and Bloomberg, a former Republican.
“We are looking at a party that has decided that we’re either going to support someone who is a democratic socialist or somebody who has a long history of being a Republican. … I am scared, if we cannot pull this party together, if we go to one of those extremes, we take a terrible risk of re-electing Donald Trump.”
“That is a risk that will hurt the American people in a way that we, none of us on this stage, should be willing to risk.”
“I like Bernie, we came in with each other into the Senate, but I do not think he’s the best person to lead the ticket,” said Klobuchar, a U.S. senator from Minnesota.
She later spoke directly to voters in states with elections on March 3, Super Tuesday.
“Super Tuesday states: one-third of America will vote,” she said. “Do you want to have someone in charge of this ticket who wants to put forward $60 trillion in spending, three times the American economy? I don’t think we do. I think that we can get all those bold progressive things done without having someone that is so alienating that we’re going to turn off the voters that we need to bring with us.”
(Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)