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Democratic Candidates Debate In South Carolina Ahead Of Primary Election

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

With his win in Nevada, Senator Bernie Sanders has become the candidate to beat in the Democratic presidential contest, so he's likely to get some tough questions in tonight's debate. He will be one of seven candidates onstage in South Carolina, which holds its primary on Saturday. Joining me now from the Palmetto State are NPR political correspondents Juana Summers and Asma Khalid.

Hey there, you two.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hi there.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: Hi. OK, Juana, you first. I want to just get the landscape, the state of the race there in South Carolina. How are the candidates making their case to voters?

SUMMERS: Sure, so a lot has changed in the weeks since we've last been here. Bernie Sanders is now the frontrunner in this race, having picked up wins in a number of contests. And a lot of the attention is turning to him. He is someone who, in 2016, didn't perform as well here. But this year, he's rising in the polls and gaining ground with black voters, who make up roughly 60% of the state's Democratic electorate.

Now, Joe Biden has been promising a win here for some time. And I was just at an event with some of his top surrogates. One lawmaker who's backing him, Congressman G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, says he believes Biden will win the state by double digits on Saturday, so some real confidence. Now, Biden's campaign has been focusing on Sanders. He's released this new digital ad in South Carolina accusing Bernie Sanders of trying to undermine President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign by threatening a primary challenge to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Back in Washington, there was one guy with another plan.

BERNIE SANDERS: I think it would be a good idea if President Obama faced some primary opposition.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Bernie Sanders was seriously thinking about challenging our first African American president in a primary.

SUMMERS: Now, it's important to note that Sanders has said this is not true. But in this state, it's a really charged message with such a heavily black Democratic electorate here. And that's a group that's on top of mind for a lot of candidates in this state.

KELLY: Yeah. And, Asma, I want to bring you in on this. Where are y'all, by the way? I can hear a lot of noise behind you.

KHALID: Yeah, we're actually at the filing center, so we're here on the campus of where this debate's going to occur.

KELLY: Got it, OK.

KHALID: And so people are kind of setting up their own TV live hits (ph) behind us.

KELLY: Everybody getting ready for all the action tonight - OK, so back to the black electorate that we just heard Juana talking about there, this has been Joe Biden's thing. It has been that he feels he has support among black voters. He has talked about South Carolina in particular and how he thinks he will win that slice of the electorate. He's talked about it as a firewall for his whole candidacy. How much is at stake for him tonight in this debate?

KHALID: I think so much is at stake for him and more him, perhaps, than any other candidate. I mean, as you mentioned, he has long been insisting that he would do better once this race moved on to more diverse states. That's initially what they were saying. Then we saw how poorly he finished in Nevada, and now the argument is he will do better once this race moves on to a state with a sizable African American population. If he does not have a decisive win in South Carolina, I just think his arguments around electability become really hard to sell moving forward.

And look. I mean, I think this is worth pointing out that this is not just a contest ahead of the South Carolina primary. This is going to be the last debate before Super Tuesday.

KELLY: Yeah.

KHALID: And so, you know, at that point, he's really trying to sort of squoosh (ph) some of Sanders' momentum. And, you know, as Juana said, he has been criticizing Bernie Sanders more so in recent days and not just for this possible, you know, alleged primary challenge to Barack Obama during his second term but also for the fact that he thinks the Vermont senator has a really ambitious list of public policies - that he is not being truthful about how he will pay for these without raising taxes on the middle class.

KELLY: And we should note Joe Biden - far from the only candidate who has his sights set on Bernie Sanders tonight, right, Juana?

SUMMERS: Yeah, that's right. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke here last night. He, essentially, is making the case that Bernie Sanders being the nominee would hurt Democrats down the ballot, that he isn't espousing an inclusive politics while the two of them may share some of the same ideals.

We've also been hearing a lot from former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. If you've looked online, he's been tweeting all day about his fight for gun safety legislation and how he's taken on the National Rifle Association, while saying that Sanders' record on gun is not strong. Mike Bloomberg has been hunkered down in debate prep, off the campaign trail for days, so we'll be waiting to see if he launches a new attack on Bernie Sanders the way they've been telegraphing.

KELLY: Right, because Bloomberg's first debate performance was, I think, fair to say, pretty rocky. Senator Elizabeth Warren really went after him. Asma, are we expecting the same thing from her tonight?

KHALID: I think that we'll all be watching really interesting - you know, curiosity - what she's doing. She had been going for the unity angle for a while prior to that last debate. But she unleashed, as you mentioned, on several other candidates, especially Bloomberg. And, you know, in recent days, it appears that she's been keeping up that fighting spirit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: Do you crouch, or do you fight back? Me - I'm fighting back.

(CHEERING)

WARREN: Fighting back is an act of patriotism.

(CHEERING)

KHALID: But Mary Louise, I think what's more interesting to me - even though, maybe, Mike Bloomberg is this perfect foil for her message on income inequality - is, does she finally direct her fire at Bernie Sanders? They certainly have some overlapping support amongst progressive voters. But, you know, he is the front-runner. And in the last debate, it did not seem like his rival saw him that way.

KELLY: We will watch and see. That is NPR's Asma Khalid and Juana Summers reporting there from South Carolina.

Thanks, you two.

KHALID: You're welcome.

SUMMERS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.