CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Rival Democratic candidates moved urgently to blunt Bernie Sanders' momentum Tuesday, charging in a crucial debate here that he is misleading voters about the cost of his ambitious agenda and warning that his nomination would cost Democrats not just the White House, but down-ballot races across the country.
The attacks were relentless and reflected the growing sense of panic among moderate Democrats since the decisive Sanders win in Nevada on Saturday, and his rise in national polls. The self-declared democratic socialist from Vermont threatens to build a lead toward the nomination that could become insurmountable.
Sanders was called out for his complimentary words about the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and sympathies with other communists. He was branded a tool of the National Rifle Association. He was charged with selling voters a fantasy of free health care and free college with no chance of getting congressional buy-in.
Appearing unrattled, the 78-year-old made the case he has built for decades: that the economy and political system are rigged in favor of elites to deprive most Americans of adequate wages, health care and educational opportunities.
"If you look at battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, polling just done this Sunday, I beat Trump," Sanders said. "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."
Sanders' rivals only recently began intensifying their attacks at him after wrongly assuming he could not build a broad enough coalition to win the nomination. But his nearly across-the-board win in Nevada dispelled that, and now they may be too late to stop him.
"We are not going to win these critical House races if people in those races have to explain why the nominee of the Democratic Party is telling them to look at the bright side of the (Fidel) Castro regime," said Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.
"We just cannot afford some of this stuff," billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, said of the Sanders agenda. "If you keep on going, we will elect Bernie. Bernie will lose to Donald Trump ... And the House 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're going to live with this catastrophe."
Bloomberg and the other remaining moderates have sought to elbow each other out of the way and become the clear counterweight to Sanders, but none has clearly emerged as his challenger. Instead, they frequently shouted over one another in heated exchanges, spending as much time attacking one another as the front-runner.
Former Vice President Joe Biden stopped speaking at the moderator's request at one point -- but then made a joke emblematic of how he has struggled in the rough and tumble of the 2020 campaign.