Tuesday night’s Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina was a mess. CBS News moderators struggled to maintain order and asked hit-or-miss questions (often with little follow-up), as candidates routinely talked over each other and blew past time limits. It was no one’s finest moment. After the ruckus died down and the dust settled, my overall impression is that the status quo was not significantly shifted over the course of two chaotic hours. Additional thoughts:
Bernie Sanders: The frontrunner was, as expected, besieged with criticisms and challenges early on, but the the blitz was relatively short-lived. The Vermont Socialist was hit on electability, the insane price tag of his ever-growing fantasy list, and a little bit on his praise for Communist dictators (he dispensed far harsher condemnations of Benjamin Netanyahu than Fidel Castro) — but after the initial onslaught, things more or less resorted to ‘normal.’ The biggest discernible difference this time out was that the audience in the hall was not in his corner, for the most part, so some of his applause lines either fell flat or even elicited groans and boos. He looked occasionally bewildered by this, but soldiered on. Sanders repeatedly asserted that his radical ideas are not radical, but he delivered this message looking like a wild-eyed socialist radical. Nevertheless, he parried most of the attacks, and never got cornered by an aggressive competitor or a persistent moderator. The trajectory of the race did not shift last night. That’s good news for Bernie.
Joe Biden: He is, according to some, the only real shot Democrats still have at stopping Bernie. His performance on Tuesday was energetic (including a lot of shouting, some of it borderline incoherent), and he landed some blows — to the delight of the friendly crowd. I think Biden did enough to help lock down Saturday’s primary, declaring definitively that he will win the state. If he doesn’t, it’s game over. He helped his cause overall, despite being less than impressive at times, and making a few hilariously wrong claims like this one:
Michael Bloomberg: The billionaire was better prepared for obvious, reheated attacks this time, so that’s a plus. He didn’t exactly look like a world-beater, though, and his rehearsed jokes were lame. Still, it was a marked improvement over his last outing. Bloomberg isn’t on the ballot this week, but he’s positioned himself a bit better heading into Super Tuesday. But does his better showing get partially canceled-out by Biden’s, in their joint quest to derail Sanders? Improvement is not necessarily a strategic victory.
Elizabeth Warren: She couldn’t recapture the magic of last week’s dismantling of Bloomberg, though she certainly tried. She also mostly laid off Bernie, suggesting that whether she fully understands it or not, she’s given up on beating him. The Massachusetts Senator turned in an improved performance over most of her debate showings, but won’t have the same ‘pop’ as last time. What is her realistic path to the nomination? Or is she on a kamikaze mission against Bloomberg, with an eye toward getting behind Bernie?
Pete Buttigieg: Solid and smooth as usual, but more aggressive (or desperate) in repeatedly interjecting and talking over others’ answers. Several of his lines connected, others were forced. What is his realistic path to the nomination?
Amy Klobuchar: Better than last time, but didn’t recapture her New Hampshire mojo. Her answers are reasonable and thought-through, for the most part. Her overall case for herself is straightforward and often persuasive in my mind, just not to enough Democratic voters, it seems. Her new delegate strategy aside, what is her realistic path to the nomination?
Tom Steyer: A total irrelevancy, aside from posing a threat to Biden (or Biden’s margin) in South Carolina, hence Joe’s seemingly out-of-nowhere slam on Steyer’s private prisons investment. The billionaire spent roughly $16 million in Nevada, en route to winning less than five percent of the vote. Yet he presses on, for some reason. South Carolina, where’s polling well enough to potentially be a decisive factor, may be the end of the line for him.