CHARLESTON, S.C.—Eyeing a South Carolina victory to rescue his presidential ambitions, Joe Biden claimed one of the state’s most coveted endorsements on Wednesday as Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders marched past the blistering assault from his rivals on the debate stage the night before.
And Pete Buttigieg, a leading critic of both Biden and Sanders, canceled multiple events on the day saying he was sick.
The developments came just three days before South Carolina’s presidential primary election—and six days before Super Tuesday—with the Democratic establishment growing increasingly concerned that Sanders, a polarizing progressive, is tightening his grip on his party’s presidential nomination.
Biden is staking his candidacy on a win in South Carolina on Saturday that would deny Sanders a third consecutive clear victory. He got a boost Wednesday after earning the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking black member of Congress and a South Carolina political kingmaker.
“I want the public to know that I’m voting for Joe Biden. South Carolina should be voting for Joe Biden,” Clyburn said, later adding “I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us.”
Speaking afterward, Biden predicted victory and slapped at Sanders. “Today, people are talking about a revolution,” Biden said. “But what the country’s looking for are results.”
The night before, Biden and his Democratic rivals unleashed a roaring assault against Sanders during a contentious debate that tested the strength of the undisputed front-runner in the party’s presidential nomination fight.
Sanders faced the brunt of the attacks for much of the night, and for one of the few times, fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren was among the critics. The Massachusetts senator pressed the case that she could execute ideas that the Vermont senator could only talk about.
“Bernie and I agree on a lot of things,” she said. “But I think I would make a better president than Bernie.”
A group of moderates, meanwhile, fought to emerge as the chief Sanders alternative.
Biden argued that only he has the experience to lead in the world. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar repeatedly contended that she alone could win the votes of battleground state moderates. And Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, pointed to Sanders’ self-described democratic socialism and his recent comments expressing admiration for Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s push for education.
“I am not looking forward to a scenario where it comes down to Donald Trump with his nostalgia for the social order of the 1950s and Bernie Sanders with a nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s,” Buttigieg declared.
But the moderates did little to draw separation among themselves, a dynamic that has so far only benefited the Vermont senator. Sanders fought back throughout the night, pointing to polls that showed him beating the Republican president and noting all the recent attention he’s gotten: “I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight. I wonder why.”
Sanders senior adviser Jeff Weaver argued afterward that the debate didn’t knock Sanders off his front-runner perch.
“They threw everything they could at Bernie Sanders. None of it stuck,” Weaver said, adding that some candidates showed “an air of desperation.”
Trump, who returned to Washington early Wednesday after a two-day trip to India, responded to a reporter’s shouted question about whether he’d seen the debate: “I did,” he said while stepping into a car. “Not too good, not too good.”
The intensity of Tuesday’s forum, with candidates repeatedly shouting over each other, reflected the reality that the Democrats’ establishment wing is quickly running out of time to stop Sanders’ rise. Even some critics, Bloomberg among them, conceded that Sanders could build an insurmountable delegate lead as soon as next week.