Tonight’s Democratic debate: How to watch, start time, and 5 key issues to watch for during it

February 25, 2020, 7:31 PM UTC

Tuesday night’s Democratic debate could either be one of the crowning or crushing moments of Bernie Sanders’ storied political career.

Four days before the crucial South Carolina primary, the presumptive frontrunner is at a pivotal point. Will Sanders, the independent socialist Democratic candidate, fresh off primary victories in Nevada and New Hampshire, remain unscathed—or become the latest target of his onstage rivals?

“There’s no way Bernie stays above the fray. They’re coming after him,” says Democratic strategist Alaina Beverly, a former aide in the White House Office of Urban Affairs during the Obama administration. “Some candidates have no choice if they want to stay in this race.”

The 10th debate—the third one this month—begins at 8 p.m. E.T. and will be held at the Gaillard Center in downtown Charleston, S.C. Hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, the debate will be moderated by CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell and CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King.

Also questioning the debaters will be Face the Nation moderator and senior foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Brennan, chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett, and 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker.

Tuesday is also the final debate before the all-important Super Tuesday primaries on March 3, when 14 states, including California, Texas, and Virginia, and one U.S. territory, will come out to vote. A lot is at stake as more than one-third of all delegates will be for up for grabs.

“Everyone needs to perform very well on that stage for relevancy,” says James Lance Taylor, a political science professor and a former political science department chair at the University of San Francisco.

Here’s what you should know ahead of tonight’s Democratic debate in Charleston.

Who qualified for the debate?

Here are the seven candidates who qualified for Tuesday’s Democratic debate:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Billionaire and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg
  • Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
  • Activist and billionaire Tom Steyer
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

There were two ways for candidates to qualify for tonight’s debate, either by capturing delegates or through polling strength. Candidates had to win a delegate in either Iowa, New Hampshire, or Nevada, or reach 10% in four national polls or at least 12% in two South Carolina polls.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii once again did not qualify to participate in tonight’s debate.

How to watch tonight’s Democratic debate online—even without cable

The Democratic debate will be broadcast live on CBS News and BET (Black Entertainment Television) and CBSN.

CBS, BET, and CBSN will also stream the debate via its mobile apps on iOS, Android, as well as their social media sites. And the debate can be seen on those networks via Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and other streaming devices.

YouTube, SiriusXM Radio channel 124, and TuneIn will also broadcast tonight’s debate.

4 key issues to watch for during the debate

1. Can Sanders withstand the onslaught?

The issues will mostly center around Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist independent seeking the Democratic nomination. With Bloomberg’s arrival, Sanders seemed to get a pass during last week’s debate, but as the consensus frontrunner, it’s his turn to face the gauntlet of scrutiny from his rivals.

Yes, he’s going to be heavily questioned about his Medicare for All health care plan, how he plans to improve America’s workforce, pay for free child care and pre-kindergarten, and his other bold policies that both captivate younger voters and cause rifts within the Democratic party.

“They’re going to hammer him on how he’s going to pay for all of his plans and what does his candidacy really stand for,” Beverly says.

But Sanders could also face heavy criticism about his past and renewed comments about late Cuban leader Fidel Castro. On Sunday, Sanders said on CBS’ 60 Minutes that the communist leader deserved criticism for “the authoritarian nature” of his government and praise for his initiatives, including his “massive literacy program.”

“Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?” Sanders asked host Anderson Cooper. Sanders received widespread bipartisan criticism from the likes of Democratic Florida congresswomen Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, as well as Republican Vice President Mike Pence.

A critical Bloomberg also tweeted, “Fidel Castro left a dark legacy of forced labor camps, religious repression, widespread poverty, firing squads, and the murder of thousands of his own people. But sure, Bernie, let’s talk about his literacy program.”

Sanders then doubled down on his comments about Castro during a town hall Monday on CNN, uttering the phrase, “The truth is the truth.” Sanders also said he looks forward to the challenge from his rivals.

“I have been extremely consistent and critical of all authoritarian regimes all over the world, including Cuba, Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia,” Sanders said. “I happen to believe in democracy, not authoritarianism.”

Sanders will likely be tested on his beliefs about democracy as he seeks to move away from the pack of candidates, says Brian Sobel, a San Francisco Bay Area political analyst.

“We’ll see if Bernie gets knocked down a peg,” Sobel says.

2. Does Biden have a must-win mentality?

South Carolina could be a make or break it debate for Biden, as the former vice president has to win the state he’s been favored to take for months and stave off both a surging Sanders and a rising Bloomberg.

In short, Biden probably has to have the best debate performance of his life Tuesday night.

Biden, who has called South Carolina his “firewall,” after having a double-digit lead in the state polls at one point, must ensure he has the state’s all-important African American vote, which is more than half of the state’s electorate. Can Biden’s message resonate with voters instead of relying on being former President Barack Obama’s right-hand man?

“Biden can’t take their votes for granted. He still has to earn them,” Taylor says. “He has to give people a reason to vote for him later this week. Most African Americans already want to vote for him, but some have lost enthusiasm for his candidacy.”

Beverly, who was a deputy political director for the Obama campaign in South Carolina in 2008, agrees. The Black vote is key to Biden’s survival, she says.

“Voters in South Carolina are really pragmatic,” Beverly says. “They want the most electable candidate and they want to know that you’re not selling them a bill of goods, what you mean is what you say, and what you mean is what you will accomplish.” 

Sobel believes that anything less than a second-place finish in South Carolina for Biden is “problematic.” And, to ensure a strong finish in South Carolina, Sobel says Biden has to take on Sanders straight up during Tuesday’s debate.

Biden also has to again attack Bloomberg on his past policies, including stop-and-frisk policing and redlining, Sobel adds.

“This is the perfect opportunity for Biden to recast his vision,” Sobel says. “His candidacy depends on it.”

3. A Bloomberg bounce back?

It’s widely said that Bloomberg will assuredly have a better second debate performance than his debut in Las Vegas.

But can he actually do it?

“I don’t think he can afford to have another bad debate,” Sobel said. “And if Bloomberg’s not ready for prime time, not all of the money in the world can take care of the wrath he will face from his opponents.”

Beverly thinks Bloomberg will improve, as he needs to have robust responses to stop-and-frisk and his past sexual harassment allegations.

“This doesn’t mean he’s off the hook, there will still be daggers and arrows shot at him,” Beverly says. “Bloomberg will not be the focal point, but I expect him to be better because he’s not on the (South Carolina) ballot and not the one to beat, for now.”

4. Will Warren have another strong debate showing?

In order for Warren to have a repeat performance of Vegas, she has to continue to be on the warpath, state her case, and again attack Bloomberg, while also keeping Sanders and Biden in mind.

Beverly says Warren has a chance to do well Tuesday night and capture still undecided voters, especially women.

“Warren was masterful in Las Vegas, but the challenge for her was that so many early votes were already banked in Nevada,” Beverly says. “She has to do well again in Charleston, otherwise it’s going to be hard for her to improve her position.”

Using boxing terms, Sobel says Warren has to be “equally aggressive and remain out of the line of fire. She has to bob and weave a little bit from being a target.”

5. Can Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Steyer steal the stage?

Of these three candidates, Buttigieg might have the most to gain and lose Tuesday night.

During last week’s debate in Vegas, Buttigieg warned his fellow Dems to “wake up” to the notion that the surging Sanders, with an “inflexible ideological revolution,” could be the party’s nominee.

Then Buttigieg tweeted Monday in response to Sanders’ 60 Minutes interview that “after four years of looking on in horror as Trump cozied up to dictators, we need a president who will be extremely clear in standing against regimes that violate human rights abroad. We can’t risk nominating someone who doesn’t recognize this.”

“He has to maintain his space in the middle and demonstrate that Sanders is so far to the left that he’s unelectable,” Sobel says. “Buttigieg has a two-prong battle. One, to paint Sanders as unelectable, and, two, that he’s the more mainstream candidate.”

Meanwhile, can Buttigieg really afford to have another contentious clash with Klobuchar who, despite recent strong debate performances, continues to be on the fringe?

Look for Klobuchar to pick her spots Tuesday by going after Sanders, as she tries to make it to Super Tuesday and at least win the primary in her home state of Minnesota.

As for Steyer, who’s back on the debate stage after intensely campaigning in South Carolina, there’s a bit of intrigue on how he will take aim at fellow billionaire Bloomberg, the undisputed frontrunner Sanders, and a desperate Biden.

“I’m curious to see how Steyer will insert himself into what promises to be a very spirited debate,” Sobel says. “There’s an awful lot on the line.”

Correction, Feb. 25, 2020: An earlier version of this story left out Senator Elizabeth Warren’s name on the list of candidates who qualified for the debate.

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