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The Trailer: It was another not great South Carolina debate. Here are the prizes.

In this special post-debate edition: Prizes for the candidates, a breakfast with Al Sharpton, and some clarity on what Joe Biden did in Africa.

I was not arrested while writing this newsletter, but I was separated from my WiFi. This is The Trailer.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Just as no good decisions are made after 2 a.m., no good debates are held before the South Carolina primary. It was here that the 2008 contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama descended into a fight about slumlords, that Newt Gingrich blew up at a question about infidelity, that Donald Trump was booed so lustily that he accused the audience of being stuffed with lobbyists.

There were plenty of boos inside the Gaillard Center on Tuesday, so many that they birthed a conspiracy theory about Mike Bloomberg buying up tickets to build a cheering section. (Every campaign had the same number of tickets, and donors got the rest.) There were long stretches when candidate crosstalk blended into a sort of Steve Reich cacophony. 

When it was over, a few campaigns argued that they'd won; a few argued that the mess hadn't changed anything. But this will be the last debate until March 15, after around half of the delegates to the national convention have been selected, so it's all we have to work with. The best way of reviewing what happened might be handing out some prizes.

Most improved former front-runner: Joe Biden. He has led in every poll of South Carolina, and a decisive win here would be interpreted as a just-in-time comeback. But Biden has lost three consecutive contests and slipped in Super Tuesday polling, and for the first time in 10 of these debates, he was not at the center of the stage.

That helped Biden, as did questions that tended to accept his campaign's premises. Apart from one superficially negative question about why he was “slipping with black voters,” Biden was usually asked to remind voters about his record. 

On gun safety laws: “Why should anyone have faith that you're the one who can get this done now?” On racial wealth gaps: “How do you convince black voters that you can change years of inequities?” Biden was asked straightforwardly how he would handle the coronavirus outbreak, relations with North Korea and the ambitions of the Chinese construction industry.

Biden was defter than usual in handling those questions; like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, he has been energized by the threat posed by Mike Bloomberg, but he was also fired up by Tom Steyer, the billionaire who has single-handedly weakened his position in South Carolina.

“You talk about concerned about race?” Biden asked. “Well, my good friend on the end of this platform, he, in fact, bought a system that was a private prison system, after, after he knew that, in fact, what happened was, they hogtied young men in prison here in this state.”

Biden also made a surprising but memorable promise to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court.

It wasn't always pretty, but it was the kind of strategy — formulate an attack, and stick to it — that Biden had struggled to pull off before. And it was just in time.

Most improved not-quite-front-runner: Mike Bloomberg. The jokes were terrible, and terribly delivered; Bloomberg's facetious thank-you to the candidates he had “beaten” in Las Vegas was cringeworthy. A tiny slip, when Bloomberg seemed to say he'd “bought” the 2018 Democratic landslide in the House, will probably have a radioactive half-life in Sanders campaign videos.

But Bloomberg learned from his face-plant last week. He concisely made his electability argument against Sanders: “Can anybody in this room imagine moderate Republicans going over and voting for him?” He stuck, when he could, to the arguments that work in his speeches and TV ads. He had been a mayor for 12 years, he had spent a lot of money on philanthropy, and he could run on that.

“I raised teacher salaries by 43 percent,” he said during a fairly noncombative round about education. “I put an extra $5 billion into our school system. I value education. It is the only way to solve the poverty problem is to get people a good education. And rather than just talk about it in New York, we actually did it.”

Most importantly, Bloomberg corrected last week's problem of being pulled into unwinnable arguments. After an argument with Warren over the nondisclosure agreements at his company began to drag, Bloomberg credited Warren with changing his policy.

“The trouble is with this senator, enough is never enough,” Bloomberg said. “I'm going to start focusing on some of these other things. We just cannot continue to re-litigate this every time.”

‘Nastiest’ woman: Elizabeth Warren. One of the strongest, purely accidental moments of Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign came at the end of the third general-election debate, when Trump grew frustrated and called her a “nasty woman.” That backfired, as Clinton's female supporters embraced the epithet. But because Clinton lost the election, many Democratic voters have come to believe that Clinton was pushed around by Trump and that the Republican made her look weak.

The new Elizabeth Warren, the one who first emerged at the Las Vegas debate, is very comfortable when she's frustrating her opponents. As in Vegas, she used Bloomberg as a stand-in for the president, hitting him again and again over his tax returns, his comments on redlining, and his support for Republican candidates. In evoking the accusation that Bloomberg had told a pregnant employee to “kill” her baby, Warren drew the air out of the debate hall, but teed up post-debate interviews in which she was in the comfortable position of defending women against men who accused them of inventing stories of harassment. Her campaign quickly put up for sale a T-shirt quoting Bloomberg saying about her, “Enough is never enough.”

Warren's performance was not as shocking or commanding as what she'd done in Las Vegas; tellingly, her campaign did not release instant fundraising numbers, as it had last week. But nothing went wrong, especially because moderators (more about them below) repeatedly tried to trap Warren on a subject that seemed to make her less comfortable, then immediately moved on.

Least interested in putting up with this: Bernie Sanders. The senator from Vermont's hatred of “corporate media” is pure, and he is more comfortable than any other candidate when challenging the premise of the media's questions. He had never been under so much pressure, and he responded to it by talking over opponents, deriding the way some issues were framed, and at one point even saying “really?” when audience members booed a statement about Cuba's dictatorship improving literacy and life expectancy.

“Occasionally it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy,” Sanders said, as a round on his left-wing, anti-imperialist foreign policy chugged along. “That includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran. And when dictatorships, whether it is the Chinese or the Cubans, do something good, you acknowledge that. But you don't have to trade love letters with them.”

Nothing Sanders did canceled the attacks that other campaigns think will work against him. He does not care, and he sees a path to the nomination without bending on any of this.

Best candidate with a cold: Pete Buttigieg. The campaign's post-debate announcement that it was canceling events in Florida came as a surprise; if the candidate was sick, he didn't come across that way onstage. Trailing in polls of South Carolina and every Super Tuesday state, the pressure was off Buttigieg, and he used that to finish arguments that hadn't gone his way before.

“You've got people believing something that is false,” Buttigieg told Sanders when he began attacking his support from billionaire donors. “This needs to be cleared up.” That was the cue for Buttigieg to clarify that billionaires had given him only a few thousand dollars.

Apart from one strange moment, when Buttigieg pretzeled a question about foreign policy into a point about how Denmark does not ban duplicative private insurance, Buttigieg effectively used his time.

The why-are-they-here award: Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer. Klobuchar's triumphant New Hampshire debate had one ingredient she did not control: a complacent Warren. For one night, she was not just a moderate warning that the party could go off the rails with the wrong nominee. She was also a qualified female candidate for president being shoved out of the conversation.

Warren reasserted herself and cut off that particular lane for Klobuchar. Her most memorable points were familiar ones, arguing that Sanders would throw the election and she would win.

“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,” Klobuchar said. Her kitchen-sink approach veered toward self-parody in the debate's final moments, when she used a (somewhat silly) question about a misconception voters had about her to pack in everything from her relationship to the late senator Paul Wellstone to how “my grandpa was an iron ore miner in the unions.”

Steyer, who is strong in South Carolina, did not fully demonstrate why. Explaining his support for reparations, he said that America “should have a formal commission on race to retell the story of the last 400-plus years in America of African Americans, of systematic legal injustice, discrimination, and cruelty.” That's actually a position shared by Sanders and Warren. When Steyer was not defending himself against Biden, or being ignored by Sanders (“we're talking about my plan, not yours”), he was largely agreeing with points made by other candidates.

Least helpful moderating: All of it. The scattered, busy and occasionally pointless questioning left some topics more muddled than they had been at the start of the night. Reporters were added to the stage segment by segment, like the Talking Heads and their touring band in “Stop Making Sense.” 

Warren got three questions about foreign policy issues that have not been at the front of many voters' minds, such as the Trump administration's 2018 relocation of America's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv. Biden got no question about his apparently false story of being arrested while trying to visit Nelson Mandela; Warren got no question about abandoning her year-long opposition to super PACs

And if there is a way to ask about Medicare-for-all without throwing the candidates into a repetitive time warp, no moderator has figured it out. They'll get another chance next month, in Arizona.

Reading list

“Democrats gang up on Sen. Bernie Sanders in South Carolina presidential debate, Matt Viser, Annie Linskey, Sean Sullivan, and Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Chaos reigns in Charleston.

“Democrats get their MRI for the soul in South Carolina,” by Jonathan V. Last

Inside every candidate's strategy.

“Bloomberg improves from his last debate — but is it enough?” by Michael Scherer

From disaster to good enough.

“Sanders declined an invitation — and ended up in a fight over Jewish identity,” by Michelle Boorstein

Skipping the AIPAC primary, and feeling the consequences.

On the trail

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Six of the seven Democrats competing in South Carolina’s primary spent Wednesday morning with the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, delivering breakfast speeches that revealed their divergent levels of support from black voters.

Former vice president Joe Biden spoke first, and most briefly, devoting most of his time to praise for House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). Biden would head from the event to accept Clyburn's official endorsement, hinted at for days; in the room, he joked that he “worked for” Clyburn and would implement his agenda once he got the president out of office.

“Jim, you better hope I don’t win, because you’re going to be the busiest man in the world,” Biden said.

Biden was quieter than he'd been on the debate stage, starting out by commenting on how hard it was to talk about the untimely death of his wife, daughter and son. But even his rote lines lit up the room. There were shouts of “yes!” and “come on!” when he criticized President Trump and said that he sometimes didn’t know whether it was 1920 or 2020. 

The other five candidates who made it to the breakfast got generally quieter receptions. Some of them seemed to seek it; Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts told a personal story about her days as a Sunday school teacher and how she saw the “divine” in every person, before making a familiar pitch for her wealth tax. 

Some seemed to seek a bigger reaction than they got, with Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota quickly running through her agenda after a joke about an event where people fainted during long political speeches got modest laughter.

“Yes, I'm a former prosecutor,” Klobuchar said, touching on a subject that has made it tougher for her to win black support. “That was the job I did before I got to the Senate. And I think actually having someone that knows the system, the bad parts, the good parts, what needs to be changed,” would be a good idea.

Sharpton took time to introduce each candidate, noting that he had not heard of former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg before his campaign began and saying that Warren had “faced gender bias more than anyone.”

Sharpton, a 2004 candidate for president, also gave some commentary on the candidates’ odds. He described Warren as a candidate who was making a difference “whether she becomes president.” But as she left the stage, he introduced Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont as “the front-runner” and warned against “red-baiting” by pointing out that Nelson Mandela, too, had once praised Fidel Castro.

Sanders, who has added more South Carolina stops to his schedule as Biden's poll lead has slipped, described the president as a “racist” and reminded the crowd of his role spreading conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama. He tackled one liability head-on, arguing that attempts to turn Democratic socialism into a liability would fail.

“Dr. King talked about socialism during his life and what he said back then resonates today,” Sanders said. “This is what he said, and I quote: ‘This country has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor.’ ”

Tom Steyer, whose free spending and constant campaigning has made him a factor in South Carolina, was the only candidate who criticized “socialism” by name. “I want to put black people in charge of their economic destiny,” Steyer said, discussing his campaign to give loans to black businesses. 

The billionaire investor told the audience that he “grew up in the Civil Rights movement,” that he was the only candidate who supported reparations for the descendants of slaves, and that he had taken on the president only after black members of Congress set the tone.

“I saw a president who I thought was evil, who I thought was a racist,” Steyer said.

“Say that, Tom!” shouted one attendee.

Buttigieg, who was scrapping the rest of his Wednesday schedule after catching a cold, gave the most traditional stump speech of the day, describing how a “diverse and low-income city” took a chance on him. He got rousing applause, but on the way out, the mostly black audience had been most impressed by the candidate they’d known the longest.

“I respect them, but my mind is already made up,” said Tomi Greene, 70. “I’m for Biden.”

The Rev. Randolph Miller, 59, said he was trying to decide between Biden and Sanders. One determining factor: Both of them had spent plenty of time talking to black voters.

“When they come to our churches, they don't just pop in,” he said. “They stick around.” 

Candidate tracker

Most of the campaign is still unfolding in South Carolina, though some candidates are beginning a dash to Super Tuesday states.

Joe Biden. He'll hold an event with actress Vivica A. Fox, a native of South Bend, Ind., in Conway, S.C.

Bernie Sanders. He'll rally in Richmond before heading back to South Carolina to rally in Spartanburg.

Pete Buttigieg. He'll hold events in Greenville and Rock Hill, looking for delegates in two districts full of suburban Republican voters.

Elizabeth Warren. She'll be in San Antonio for a town hall with Julián Castro.

Amy Klobuchar. She'll spend the day in Virginia and North Carolina, with public stops, a fundraiser and a Fox News town hall.

Tom Steyer. He'll hold events in Orangeburg and Summerville, S.C.

Mike Bloomberg. He'll hold rallies in cities across four Super Tuesday states: Houston, Memphis, Oklahoma City and Fayetteville, Ark.

Tulsi Gabbard. She'll hold a town hall in Sterling, Va.

Wait, what?

One of the campaign's odder mysteries was solved last night, when Joe Biden's campaign walked back the candidate's claim that he had been arrested while trying to visit Nelson Mandela in his South African prison.

The Biden campaign did not, technically, say that Biden had been wrong. Kate Bedingfield, the campaign's deputy campaign manager, said instead that Biden had been talking about his overall support for the anti-apartheid movement.

“He took a trip with a [congressional delegation] in the ‘70s,” she said in the post-debate spin room. “He was separated from the [Congressional Black Caucus] members he was traveling with at the airport, when he landed. When making that remark, he was talking about his long record fighting apartheid; he was one of the leading voices in the United States Senate in the ’80s.”

Biden's remarks had gone further than that. Earlier in the month, he had said that he was arrested while trying to see Mandela, three times. Once, he added that Mandela had personally thanked him, remembering that “you got arrested trying to see me.”

Bedingfield's explanation did not go that far. Instead, she said that Biden was briefly separated from the members of the CBC on his trip, with no mention of an arrest or detention, all of it happening hundreds of miles away from the Robben Island prison.

“It was a separation,” she said. 'He was not allowed to go through the same door as the rest of the party he was with. Obviously, this was apartheid South Africa. There was a white door. There was a black door. He did not want to go through the white door and have the rest of the party go through the black door. He was separated. This was during a trip while they were there in Johannesburg. And those are the facts." 

Countdown

… three days until the South Carolina primary 
… six days until Super Tuesday
… 13 days until Super Tuesday II
… 18 days until the 11th Democratic debate
… 20 days until Super Tuesday III

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