From the opening bell, the Democratic candidates sparred with the desperation of the looming deadline. Sixteen states and territories will vote in the next week and everyone has little time to slow the building momentum of Senator Bernie Sanders, who leads in the early delegate chase and has won the most votes in each of the first three states.
Here are six takeaways from Tuesday night’s debate.
It was a messy and unmoderated melee.
Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg questioned not only Mr. Sanders’s electability but his impact down-ballot.
Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg made the same argument.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. hit Mr. Sanders on guns.
The hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer — who has previously been an ally of the Vermont senator — joined in and so did Senator Elizabeth Warren, who contrasted herself with Mr. Sanders for the first time by saying she would be more effective as president.
In response to the onslaught, Mr. Sanders joked of his newfound front-runner status. “I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight,” he said. “I wonder why.”
Time and again Mr. Sanders was challenged on the political impact of his expansive agenda — and how he would pay for it. “Can you do the math for the rest of us?” asked Norah O’Donnell of CBS. Mr. Sanders declined.
“How many hours do you have?” he said, without providing details.
It was a messy two-hour affair, marked by moderators who went missing for long stretches as cross-talk, over and over, made the conversation unintelligible.
“Why am I stopping? No one else stops,” Mr. Biden wondered aloud.
When the moderators did intervene, it was sometimes to move the conversation past key moments, including when Mr. Biden pointedly suggested some complicity for Mr. Sanders in a mass shooting because of past positions on gun legislation, and when Ms. Warren began swiping at Mr. Sanders.
Amid the bedlam, the political impact on the many diverse states voting so soon was uncertain.
Sanders took some hits, and the Cuba one landed.
Mr. Sanders is now the undisputed front-runner in the race, and his rivals have been trying to hit him any way they can in recent days. At the debate, they pounced on him more than at any previous forum: challenging whether he was an effective progressive, criticizing his gun control record, and arguing that his nomination would hurt moderate House and Senate candidates in the November election.
None of these attacks were sustained or especially searing, although the point about his down-ballot impact is coming up more and more.
If Mr. Sanders looked vulnerable during any line of attack, it was on the questions about his beliefs about Cuba and socialism — specifically, his praise of Cuba’s education and health care programs under the regime of Fidel Castro.
The problem for his rivals is that no one really knows how to talk about these matters. Candidates struggle to talk about the problems around authoritarianism without evoking the idea that universal access to health and education are bad. It’s also hard for Mr. Sanders to evoke the ideas without talking about the authoritarian regime that put those policies into place.
It’s a messy topic that moderators flew over as Mr. Buttigieg tried to tackle the topic head-on, saying that Mr. Sanders can’t live in the “revolution politics of the’60s.” Mr. Sanders kept to his message — that health care is a human right — and that countries other than Cuba have access to universal health care. But the conflation of left-wing policies and authoritarian regimes clearly left Mr. Sanders frustrated, and he didn’t entirely neutralize the controversy surrounding his Cuba remarks.
Warren’s new pitch: She’s more effective than Sanders.
A week ago, Ms. Warren displayed the debate skills that once made her a high-school champion, flaying Mr. Bloomberg over his past comments to women and the nondisclosure forms used by his company that she said were muzzling them.
That she took aim at Mr. Bloomberg again — this time for his past donations to Republicans, including South Carolina’s own senior senator, Lindsey Graham — took the surprise out of her sequence of slashing attacks, however effective and well-executed.
But she turned her talents at a new target whom she had spent months willfully ignoring: Mr. Sanders, the clear front-runner headed into Super Tuesday. A fellow liberal, she aligned herself with his ideas but separated herself from him by casting herself as the more effective alternative.
“Bernie and I agree on a lot of things,” she said. “But I think I would make a better president than Bernie.”
She said she had a record of accomplishments, including the creation of a federal consumer advocacy agency. “I dug in. I did the work and then Bernie’s team trashed me for it,” she said.
She added to the pile-on about Mr. Sanders’s dismissal of how he would pay for universal health care — an issue she was also criticized for last fall, prompting her to release a detailed plan. “Progressives have got one shot,” she said, “and they need to spend it with a leader who will get something done.”
Still, it was clear Ms. Warren remains most at ease when criticizing Mr. Bloomberg, which she did early, often and intensely. “I don’t care how much money Mayor Bloomberg has, the core of the Democratic Party will never trust him,” she said.
Facing a make-or-break primary, Biden brings Obama.
Mr. Biden has got to win the South Carolina primary on Saturday. He knows his best shot is if voters there remember that he was the loyal vice president of Barack Obama.
Mr. Biden, who phoned Mr. Obama earlier Tuesday, spent most of the debate defending Mr. Obama’s presidential legacy, attacking Mr. Sanders for besmirching it or making more promises to black voters — like the prospect of putting the first black woman on the Supreme Court.
It’s quite the comedown for Mr. Biden, who has led in all the South Carolina polling and, until a few weeks ago, was seen as the national front-runner. Now he’s placed fourth, fifth and second in the first three contests — and rather than look like a confident winner in the debate, he complained time and again about not getting more chances to speak.
Many voters clearly aren’t in love with the idea of a Biden presidency, so he is leaning hard into the loyalty of the black electorate in a state he’s made almost a second home, hugging Mr. Obama tight.
Bloomberg bumps his way through.
Mr. Bloomberg knew his last debate performance was bad enough that he had to make a joke about it. The problem? He wasn’t verbally agile enough to land the line.
“I would have thought after I did such a good job in beating them last week, that they would be a little bit afraid,” Mr. Bloomberg said haltingly.
They were not afraid.
Despite Mr. Sanders’s status as the front-runner, many rivals seemed more comfortable hitting Mr. Bloomberg and his lengthy past record of issues and comments that are seriously distasteful to many liberals. Mr. Bloomberg came out gunning for Mr. Sanders (“Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States, and that’s why Russia is helping you get elected”) but his overall performance seemed unlikely to quiet the questions that began last week about his skills as a candidate.
Ms. Warren, in particular, took him to task again on nondisclosure agreements, prompting the former mayor to offer up a pretty gendered line — “the trouble is with this senator, enough is never enough” — that Ms. Warren’s campaign quickly slapped on a shirt they put up for sale.
Mr. Bloomberg touted his massive spending, $100 million for congressional Democrats in 2018, as a shield against partisan attacks — and then nearly had a revealing slip of the tongue.
“All of the new Democrats that came in,” he said, “put Nancy Pelosi in charge, and gave the Congress the ability to control this president, I bough — got them.”
All told, the contrast between the glossy Bloomberg image crafted by his talented ad-makers and the more mundane reality of the man was in especially sharp relief. Perhaps never more than when one of Mr. Bloomberg’s own commercials played during the debate.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar had low-impact performances.
This might have been the last debate for Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Klobuchar. Both are staring down back-of-the-pack finishes in South Carolina and the diverse Super Tuesday states to follow.
Yet neither had a big moment. Neither delivered a sustained assault on Mr. Sanders, the delegate leader who is threatening to run away from the pack if he can place first in South Carolina and the delegate-rich states that vote next week. And neither engaged in the verbal jousting with each other that highlighted their exchanges last week in Las Vegas.
It begs the question: What were they thinking?
They both needed to do something to change the trajectory of the race. While Mr. Buttigieg fought Mr. Sanders to a draw in Iowa and narrowly finished second in New Hampshire, where Ms. Klobuchar’s third place finish gave her campaign oxygen, neither has shown much traction with black or Latino voters. They’ve been at this for more than a year, and still rely on white voters for the vast majority of their appeal.
Now both head into South Carolina’s Saturday primary and the contests in 16 states and territories on Tuesday knowing the last thing most voters will see from them are excerpts from their stump speeches. They’ll find out soon if that’s good enough.