Joe Biden accused Bernie Sanders of causing “carnage on our streets” by voting against gun control legislation in a heated and relentlessly negative debate that was the last chance for several Democratic presidential contenders to keep their struggling campaigns alive.
Mr. Biden also promised to appoint an African-American woman to the Supreme Court if elected, in a bid to shore up his once formidable but rapidly shrinking lead among black voters.
The seven-person joust Tuesday in South Carolina is the last before this state’s primary on Saturday and next week’s Super Tuesday contests, in which California, Texas and several other large states will vote.
The candidates all ganged up on Mr. Sanders, aiming to blunt the front-running Vermont senator’s momentum by slamming both his big-spending policy agenda and his praise of communist Cuba’s social programs.
But none of the broadsides went as far as Mr. Biden’s. Early in the debate he referenced the nearby Mother Emanuel Church, where a white supremacist shot nine people to death in 2015.
“Bernie voted five times against the Brady Bill,” Mr. Biden said, referring to Mr. Sanders’s opposition in 1993 to background-check legislation. “I’m not saying he’s responsible for the nine deaths, but that man would not have been able to get that weapon with the waiting period had been what I suggested.”
Later, Mr. Biden went after Mr. Sanders’s support for legislation that allowed gun manufacturers to dodge lawsuits when their weapons were used in crimes.
“That has caused carnage on our streets – 150 million people have been killed since 2007 when Bernie voted to exempt the gun manufacturers from liability. More than all the wars, including Vietnam, from that point on,” Mr. Biden thundered. It was not clear where Mr. Biden got his inflated total – 150 million people is nearly half the entire population of the country. Also, the legislation Mr. Sanders supported landed in 2005, two years earlier than Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Sanders said he regretted his previous positions on gun control, and laced into Mr. Biden for once supporting the invasion of Iraq and the original North American free-trade agreement.
“Joe has voted for terrible trade agreements … Joe voted for the war in Iraq,” he said. “I have cast thousands of votes, including bad votes. That was a bad vote.”
Mr. Sanders also touted his long-standing support for banning assault rifles and promised to bring in tougher background checks if elected.
Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, meanwhile, rounded on Mr. Sanders for praising Cuba’s literacy programs in a 60 Minutes interview.
“We’re not going to win these critical, critical House and Senate races if people in those races have to explain why the nominee of the Democratic Party is telling people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime,” he said.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said she agreed with Mr. Sanders on policy – both support abolishing private health insurance in favour of a single-payer Medicare-for-All system – but said he was too vague and combative to make it happen.
“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 that happen,” she said.
Former hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer, meanwhile, accused Mr. Sanders of plotting “a government takeover of large parts of the economy.”
Mr. Sanders said he condemned all authoritarian regimes – including Cuba, China and Saudi Arabia – but that he would not shy away from complimenting specific policies he felt those regimes got right. And he answered attacks on his electability by saying that only he can motivate the support necessary to win.
“Mayor Bloomberg has a solid and strong and enthusiastic base of support. The problem is, they’re all billionaires,” he said in one jab at the former New York mayor.
Ms. Warren also targeted Mr. Bloomberg, a billionaire who is self-funding his campaign. She listed off all the Republican candidates Mr. Bloomberg previously donated to, then pressed him on accusations of sexist remarks levelled by his former employees.
“I don’t care how much money Mayor Bloomberg has. The core of the Democratic Party will never trust him,” she said.
Mr. Bloomberg dismissed such accusations as “sideshows,” and his comments as “jokes.”
The debate often took on an air of desperation, with the candidates shouting over each other. Mr. Biden twice snapped at the moderators when he thought they had not given him enough speaking time. On several occasions, Mr. Sanders threw his hands in the air.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, meanwhile, seemed exasperated by the vicious tone.
“If we spend the next four months tearing each other apart, we’ll spend the next four years watching Donald Trump tearing this country apart,” she said.
Mr. Biden, Ms. Warren, Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Steyer have yet to win a state and could be driven from the contest if they fail to make any breakthroughs on Super Tuesday next week.
Mr. Buttigieg fought Mr. Sanders to near-draws in Iowa and New Hampshire, but so far has failed to gain any traction with the black voters who form the core of the Democrats’ base. Mr. Bloomberg has not yet contested a state.
Mr. Biden once held wide leads in South Carolina and among African-American voters, only to watch Mr. Sanders make inroads with both.
In his closing statement, he made one final pledge in a bid to stay in the game.
“I’m looking forward to making sure there’s a black woman on the Supreme Court to make sure that we in fact get every representation,” he said. “Not a joke.”