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A Preview Of South Carolina's Democratic Primary Debate


Well, Bernie Sanders is the clear front-runner in the Democratic presidential race heading into this Saturday's South Carolina primary. Before primary day, of course, the candidates are going to be on stage again for debate - that is this evening in Charleston. At last week's debate, most of the attacks were pointed at the new guy on stage, Mike Bloomberg. But some candidates are already previewing plans to go after the front-runner, Bernie Sanders, pretty hard tonight.

Let's bring in NPR political reporter Juana Summers, who is in South Carolina. Hi, Juana.


GREENE: So Bernie Sanders, after a really big win in Nevada, heads into South Carolina. Describe the position of his campaign right now.

SUMMERS: Sure. So he had this landslide victory in Nevada, and in South Carolina, recent polling puts him in a close second place behind former Vice President Joe Biden. This week, his campaign is trying to turn that into a win - pouring new resources into the state, adding a whole lot of events. This is a really notable change from Senator Sanders' first presidential campaign, David. If you remember, he lost quite badly here in 2016 due to poor support among black voters. If Sanders does well here, it could vault him into Super Tuesday, just three days later, with so much momentum that it would be really difficult for any of his opponents to catch up with him.

He spoke last night at a state Democratic Party dinner here in Charleston, and he made a case about electability.


BERNIE SANDERS: First of all, I know you're hearing on TV a lot Bernie can't win. Don't believe everything you hear on TV.


SANDERS: Truth is that on most, virtually all of the national polls, we are defeating Donald Trump.

GREENE: So, I mean, being the front-runner, Juana, we should say, means that the attacks start coming from fellow candidates. It sounds like we're already seeing some of that ahead of this debate.

SUMMERS: Yeah, that's right. We're getting a preview already. Former Vice President Biden's campaign is airing a new digital ad in South Carolina. It accuses Senator Sanders of trying to undermine President Obama's reelection campaign by threatening a primary challenge to him.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Back in Washington, there was one guy with another plan.

SANDERS: I think it would be a good idea if President Obama faced some primary opposition.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Bernie Sanders was seriously thinking about challenging our first African American president in a primary.

SUMMERS: Now, it's important to note that Sanders has said this is not true, that he was not considering a primary challenge to Obama. But this is a really charged message here in South Carolina, with a really heavily black Democratic electorate. But Biden's not the only candidate who we're hearing from. Last night, we also heard a preview of what we might hear on the debate stage from Pete Buttigieg. He also spoke at that party dinner after Sanders, and he draw a direct contrast, saying that some of Sanders' plans were unrealistic, and he suggested that he could be a drag on down-ticket Democrats.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: I believe that more Americans want to be part of an inclusive victory than to seek ideological purity. I believe that we ought to achieve our goals by calling people in, not calling people names.

SUMMERS: We've also heard from Tom Steyer. He spent more time in South Carolina than any other candidate. And he's been making an economic argument that Sanders' policies are bad for working-class Americans.

GREENE: Well, Juana, let me ask you about Mike Bloomberg. I mean, the former New York mayor made his debut on the debate stage recently - didn't go so well. Does that put the pressure on him tonight?

SUMMERS: I think it absolutely does. In that debate, you heard him face questions about allegations of hostile workplace for women at his company, the stop-and-frisk policing policies in New York City. So he'll need to take a really different approach, where he risks not being in a position to capitalize on the multimillion-dollar investment he's made in the states that come after South Carolina. He, of course, is not competing here for the state's votes.

GREENE: And then you have Joe Biden, who's always talked about South Carolina as so important - you know, described as, like, a firewall for him. I mean, he has so much on the line here.

SUMMERS: He really does. This is - the state's close to a must-win for him. More than half of the Democratic electorate in the state is black voters, one of Biden's strongest blocs of support. So if he didn't win here, it would undercut this argument of electability he's been campaigning on. One thing we're watching out for is whether he gets backing of Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress.

GREENE: All right, we'll be watching for that. NPR's Juana Summers in Charleston, S.C. Thanks so much, Juana.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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