Senator Elizabeth Warren had perhaps the most complicated argument to make, saying that Mr. Sanders was winning “because the Democratic Party is a progressive party” but comparing her own record of accomplishment favorably to his. “Progressives have got one shot,” she said, “and we need to spend it with a leader who will get something done.”
No candidate entered the evening with more repair work to do than Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor whose jarring stumbles during last week’s debate had shaken confidence in his smartest-guy-in-the-room pitch to Democratic voters. While he had some steadier moments on Tuesday, presenting himself as more electable than Mr. Sanders at every opportunity and talking up his philanthropic history with gun control, Mr. Bloomberg slogged through some lowlights once more.
Challenged again by Ms. Warren over nondisclosure agreements with women at his company amid allegations of workplace mistreatment, Mr. Bloomberg had trouble landing an apology for making “jokes” that employees did not appreciate. “I don’t remember what they were,” he said. “If it bothered them, I was wrong, and I apologize.”
Later, he had to catch himself, while discussing his spending during the 2018 midterms, from beginning to say he had “bought” the House majority for Democrats: “All of the new Democrats that came in, put Nancy Pelosi in charge and gave the Congress the ability to control this president, I bought — I, I got them.”
At one point, in a discussion of redlining, Mr. Bloomberg stopped — “since I have the floor for a second” — to reflect on the humbling of the past week before “my fellow contestants.” “I’m surprised they show up,” he said, testing a little self-deprecation, “because I would have thought after I did such a good job in beating them last week, that they would be a little bit afraid to do that.”
The debate gathered the contenders in a state with a large black Democratic electorate, after a month that began with two nominating contests in predominantly white states. But the setting only reinforced how far the 2020 primary had traveled in recent months. Here was a stage full of white people — four septuagenarians, two billionaires, one septuagenarian billionaire — left to represent a field that once looked more like the country, with candidates of color and several more women onstage for much of the past year.
Mr. Biden, who counts black voters as the core of his political base, is relying on a victory in the state to lift him into Super Tuesday next week. Other more moderate options, like Senator Amy Klobuchar and Mr. Buttigieg have struggled to connect with nonwhite audiences.