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Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former South Bend Mayor P...

Sanders takes heat from fellow candidates in South Carolina debate

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Bernie Sanders faced a torrent of attacks from his Democratic rivals Tuesday night during a high-stakes debate that could be their final prime-time opportunity to change the direction of the 2020 nomination fight.

Mike Bloomberg seized on reports that Russia was interfering in the 2020 presidential election to help Sanders.

Joe Biden attacked Sanders for considering launching a primary challenge against former President Barack Obama.

And Even Sanders’ ideological ally, Elizabeth Warren, said she’d be a better president than the Vermont senator.

Sanders, who has risen to be the Democrats’ clear front-runner, responded: “I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight. I wonder why?”

The new wave of infighting came as Democrats met for the party’s 10th — and perhaps most consequential — debate of the 2020 primary season. Tuesday’s forum came just four days before South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary and one week before more than a dozen states vote on Super Tuesday.

Bloomberg was the focus last week for his highly anticipated debut, but after a bad performance that froze his momentum, the knives were out for the 78-year-old Vermont senator.

The night marked a major moment in Sanders’ political career. After spending decades as an outside agitator accustomed to attacking the party establishment, he’s suddenly the one on defense as the Democratic establishment fears he could build an insurmountable delegate lead as soon as next week.

Bloomberg made the case that both Trump and Russia President Vladimir Putin are in lockstep in their belief that Sanders would make the weakest Democratic general election rival for the incumbent Trump. Last week, Sanders acknowledged that he’d be been briefed by intelligence officials who said that Russia is attempting to interfere in the elections to benefit him.

“Vladimir Trump thinks Donald Trump should be president of the United States and that’s why Russia is helping you get, so you lose to him,” Bloomberg said.

Sanders shot back, “Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me you’re not going to interfere in any more American elections.’”

Biden was also looking to make a big impression in South Carolina, where he was long viewed as the unquestioned front-runner because of his support from black voters.

Also a factor: Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who has borrowed heavily from his personal fortune to fuel a strong push in South Carolina, where he’s threatening to peel away some of Biden’s support with state’s black voters. Rivals Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are also fighting to win over moderates while decrying Sanders’ chief policy priorities.

Sanders’ handling of the pressure could be crucial in determining whether he stays at the top of the Democratic pack.

Peoples reported from Washington.