On February 29,and voters nationwide will have their first opportunity to see how candidates perform in a state whose Democratic electorate is expected to be mostly African-American. Sixty percent of the turnout here is expected to comprise black voters.
Two months into 2020, after three states have weighed in, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, Bernie Sanders has emerged as the front-runner, winning both Nevada and New Hampshire, and garnering the greatest number of votes in Iowa (though he came in slightly behind Pete Buttigieg in delegates).
The Nevada caucuses were the first test of candidate's appeal to minority voters, given its substantial Hispanic population. Sanders was the most popular candidate among Hispanic voters, CBS News entrance polls showed. In South Carolina, up to this point, CBS News campaign reporter LaCrai Mitchell says Joe Biden has been leading, though his margins have been shrinking. A released Sunday shows Biden ahead of Sanders by just 5 points, a dramatic drop from the double-digit lead he held before the voting in other states began.
The candidates will also have one more opportunity to debate each other before the primary Saturday and Super Tuesday. The debate on Tuesday in Charleston will be co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.
In this special DEBATE edition of Trail Markers, the CBS News Political Unit gives a preview of what to expect from each of the candidates in Tuesday night's contest.
FROM THE CANDIDATES
VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER BO ERICKSON In Nevada, Joe Biden zeroed in on two issues: healthcare and guns. On the campaign trail, Biden often questions Bernie Sanders for not being able to nail down the cost of his "Medicare for All" healthcare plan. Biden's campaign expected this to would be a major point of contention for union families in Nevada, since single-payer plans would outlaw the generous private union plans. But CBS News exit polls indicated that in Nevada, 6 in 10 respondents in union households support the idea of "Medicare for All." In light of that, it's worth watching whether or how Biden retools his swipes at Sanders on this issue.
Biden's message on "defeating the NRA" seemed to attract both attention and praise in Nevada. And Charleston, the site of this week's debate, shares an tragic connection to Las Vegas: they both have experienced high-profile mass shootings. CBS News has been told to expect to hear Biden speak directly about how he would try to prevent shootings like the one that took place at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2015. Biden has been pointing out that Sanders voted against the Brady background check bill five times, and his campaign released a jarring video targeted at Sanders' past openness after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012 to shielding gun manufacturers from lawsuits after these mass casualty incidents.
In an interview with Face the Nation's Margaret Brennan this weekend, Biden downplayed what his own campaign team has been saying, that South Carolina is his "firewall." He said he plans to do well here and through Super Tuesday next week. But he admitted that billionaires in the race — Tom Steyer, in particular — have cut into his support with black voters in the state. A CBS News South Carolina poll published Sunday showed that Steyer has 18% support in the state, while Biden's lead here has narrowed. He has attracted 28% support, and Sanders now has 23%. In South Carolina, Biden made this point about Steyer: "I'm not saying Tom Steyer's a bad guy, but Tom Steyer was one of the largest investors in private prisons in the United States of America, while I was trying to get rid of private prisons, and Barack was trying to get rid of private prisons."
A potential boost for Biden is the expected endorsement this by House Majority Whip James Clyburn on Wednesday, who is the longest-serving member of the Palmetto State's congressional delegation and the most senior African-American lawmaker on Capitol Hill, CBS News political correspondent Ed O'Keefe reports.
VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER TIM PERRY Mike Bloomberg has barely been seen since his disappointing debate debut performance last week in Las Vegas. He conceded in an interview with MSNBC that it wasn't his best night, but he says he knows he can do better.
"I didn't have a chance to really say what I wanted to say." Bloomberg said. "Will it be the first time I've had a bad night? No. Will it be the last? No. If you had a debate on a stage having never had a bad night, nobody would be on the stage."
There's an array of issues Bloomberg has may be asked to address going into Tuesday night's debate, including a tepid apology for stop-and-frisk. And since he was confronted by Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden on stage about nondisclosure agreements signed by women who alleged sexual harassment at Bloomberg L.P., Bloomberg announced he would release three women from NDAs, since these were cases that involved complaints about comments Bloomberg himself had made. He also said the company will no longer require women use confidentiality agreements in settling sexual harassment or misconduct allegations going forward. But it's already evident this will not satisfy some of his opponents, and the questions could come up again Tuesday night.
His campaign has said nothing about his preparations going into this debate, but a campaign aide told CBS News to expect Bloomberg to be on the offensive against Bernie Sanders. Bloomberg had originally planned to participate in his first CNN town hall Monday before the debate, but postponed those plans in order to continue preparing for the upcoming debate.
"The country can't afford to let Bernie Sanders skate by another debate without a focus on his extreme record." Bloomberg campaign spokeswoman Galia Slayen said. "Mike is preparing for Tuesday's crucial debate, and looks forward to taking part in CNN's town hall on Wednesday."
Watch for Bloomberg to go after Sanders, the front-runner after strong showings in the first three contests, for his past positions on gun control and for rhetoric coming from the Sanders campaign that Bloomberg officials say led to vandalism incidents against Bloomberg campaign offices across the country.
VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER JACK TURMAN
Pete Buttigieg used his speech after the Nevada caucuses to take aim at Sanders, referring broadly to Sanders' movement as an "inflexible ideological revolution" that excludes Americans. "We can prioritize either ideological purity or inclusive victory," Buttigieg said. "We can either call people names online or we can call them into our movement."
In South Carolina, Buttigieg recently launched an ad that explicitly names Sanders when comparing health care proposals. And in the days leading up to the South Carolina debate and with Super Tuesday approaching, Buttigieg has been sounding alarms that Sanders may have an "insurmountable delegate lead" soon.
VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTERS MUSADIQ BIDAR & BO ERICKSON
After Amy Klobuchar's campaign got shot of adrenaline with her surprising third-place finish in New Hampshire, she was not able to fully convert that momentum into success in Nevada. The Minnesota senator is now in sixth place in Nevada, perhaps indicating her campaign may have troubles ahead in South Carolina
In a memo to reporters today, Klobuchar's campaign announced $4.2 million in ad buys in Super Tuesday states on cable, broadcast and digital. Ahead of the debate in South Carolina, the campaign says it's making another "six-figure investment on South Carolina TV," with just days until the First in the South Primary.
And in an effort to keep introducing herself to voters in other states, Klobuchar on Sunday made trips to North Dakota, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The latter two are Super Tuesday states. In the last debate, Klobuchar quarreled with Buttigieg, but in the South Carolina debate, she may go after Sanders. Campaign manager Justin Buoen said in the memo that "she is the best person to take on Bernie Sanders and the best candidate to beat Donald Trump."
VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER CARA KORTE When pundits and opponents claimed Bernie Sanders underperformed this year in New Hampshire, compared to his substantial double-digit victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016, his campaign pointed out that in a much larger field, of course his margin of victory would be smaller.
But South Carolina is different. In 2016, Bernie Sanders did not win a single county in the state. Clinton secured nearly three times the vote as did Sanders. That walloping was part of the reason why Sanders developed the reputation for being popular only with young white men.
With this in mind, his campaign has set the bar very low for him in South Carolina. If he finishes high, Sanders will spin it as a win, and given his dismal showing in 2016, it would be an accomplishment. An outright win would almost certainly cement his dominance in the field.
The latest CBS News Battleground Tracker poll showed that Biden's lead has been narrowing, with Sanders just five points behind him. The Sanders campaign has hustled in South Carolina since he announced his candidacy one year ago. Campaign co-chair state Senator Nina Turner, arguably Sanders' most impassioned and popular surrogates, visited South Carolina at least once a week this cycle. Other surrogates have been crisscrossing the state, including actor Danny Glover, Rapper Killer Mike, activist Phillip Agnew, and Dr. Cornell West – all commanding figures who also happen to be African-American.
Sanders has also made it a point to campaign in the poor, rural parts of the state, known as the "corridor of shame," where the education system is poor and inequality is high. He unveiled his Thurgood Marshall plan on bolstering public education here last summer. He took private tours of homes in Denmark, South Carolina, where water is so polluted that black homeowners can't drink from their faucets.
It's concerted efforts like these that Sanders' campaign hopes will help remake his image for South Carolinians. If Sanders can tell these stories at the debate Tuesday, it could help him, but whether he'll have the ability to do that when his opponents on stage are intent on taking him down is an open question. Sanders faced some opposition in the last debate — but not as much as Bloomberg faced. Given the expectation that wins for him in the Super Tuesday races will give him an insurmountable lead, Sanders can be expected to face challenges from every corner.
VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER ZAK HUDAK Tom Steyer's campaign has been arguing that he will show his strength in the more diverse early states, but he also bet big on Nevada, spending 26 days in the state and $15.5 million for ads, according to Kantar Media data, and he failed to place first or second, as he hoped (h/t campaign reporter Alex Tin). In the South Carolina debate Tuesday, Steyer plans to make a case against the "socialist" economic policies of Bernie Sanders, according to a campaign aide.
Steyer was third in the CBS News poll, after Biden and Sanders. He has already said President Trump is "running on the idea that Democrats can't grow an economy [and] are a bunch of socialists." He has also criticized Biden and Buttigieg for their respective insider and newcomer status.
Steyer has put combating climate change at the forefront of his platform, and he is likely to tout his work with the super PAC he created in 2013, NextGen America, in coastal Charleston. He also frequently reminds voters in South Carolina that he is the only candidate who has explicitly said he supports reparations for the descendants of slaves.
"Tom is the only candidate in the race fighting to return power to communities left behind by Washington through specific policies, including reparations, direct democracy, and term limits for Members of Congress," campaign manager Heather Hargreaves said in a statement. "On the debate stage Tuesday night, Tom will demonstrate that he is the only candidate who can expose Trump on the economy, put together a diverse coalition that can win in November, and break the corporate stranglehold over our government."
VIA CBS NEWS CAMPAIGN REPORTER ZAK HUDAK Elizabeth Warren's strong performance in the Las Vegas debate may have come too late to give her a boost in Nevada, after so many early votes had been cast. But South Carolina does not have early voting, and its debate gives Warren a final chance to build momentum going into the primary here and Super Tuesday. She is already foreshadowing another night of biting criticism and sharp contrasts, especially with Mike Bloomberg.
She spent much of 2019 avoiding conflict with fellow Democratic candidates, and the billionaire was the first one she openly attacked. She made him a foil for her campaign, which is centered on removing money's influence from politics.
"I think that Michael Bloomberg is the riskiest candidate standing on that stage," Warren told reporters in Denver Sunday. "Because of his history of hiding his taxes, his history of harassment of women, and his history of defending racist policies."
But Warren, who took at least one jab at every other candidate on the stage in Nevada, has also shown a new readiness to take a swing at her longtime Senate ally Bernie Sanders.
"I get real stuff done. I have rock solid and I get stuff done," she said on MSNBC Friday, asked how she's different from Sanders. "I don't want to be a president just to yell at people. I want to be a president to change things."
Bolstered by her performance last debate, Warren's campaign appears to have the funds to stay in the race through South Carolina and Super Tuesday. But without a top finish in the first three states, she will need to distinguish herself again in this debate and Saturday's primary to climb back into the top tier.
A new poll from the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs shows Biden and Sanders effectively tied for the lead in Texas. Biden had support from 22.5% of likely Texas Democratic primary voters, while Sanders had 22.1%. Trailing them were Warren (18.3%), Bloomberg (13.4%), Buttigieg (11.9%) and Klobuchar (7.2%).
The poll was conducted from February 6-18 and has a margin of error of +/- 2.7%. That means some people were surveyed before Warren and Biden finished fourth and fifth respectively in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. The poll also found that voters care most about finding a candidate to beat President Trump (57.1%), compared to someone with whom they agree on issues (31.8%) or who has the most experience (11.1%). Sanders led the field with the highest support among Latino voters (30.3%) and Biden had the highest support with African Americans (45.8%).
In Texas, Bloomberg has spent about $40 million on television and radio advertising, according to Kantar/CMAG. Most likely primary voters (83.8%) said that they've seen a Bloomberg ad, according to the poll. For those who have seen an ad, 52.5% say they have a more favorable impression of Bloomberg, compared to 12.3% who see him less favorably and 35.3% whose opinions were unchanged.
The poll was released after Sanders spent the weekend campaigning in Texas. Thousands of people attended his rallies in El Paso, San Antonio, Houston and Austin, according to CBS News campaign reporter Adam Brewster, where Sanders repeatedly assured his supporters that he would be victorious in Texas' Super Tuesday primary. "On television they say you know Texas is a conservative state, it's a red state. I don't believe it for a minute," Sanders said in Houston on Sunday. "If our people stand together, come out to vote, we're going to win here in Texas."
During his Houston rally, Sanders celebrated his win in Nevada and cited recent polling, including from CBS News, that shows him leading Mr. Trump nationally and in some battleground states. He also took aim at Bloomberg, saying that people are "tired of billionaires buying elections." He added, "Now, Michael Bloomberg, like anyone else in America has the right to run for president, but he does not have the right to buy the presidency."
In Austin on Sunday evening, the final stop on his swing, a fired up Sanders declared that the "the establishment is getting a little bit nervous about our campaign." But throughout the weekend, Sanders assured supporters that the message of "we're in it together" is a central theme of his campaign. "We must create a government and a nation in which we understand that the problems of your family are my family's problems," Sanders said in Austin. "And my family's problems are your family's problems."