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Top takeaways from CNN's presidential town halls in South Carolina

Days before the South Carolina primary, presidential candidates faced questions from voters attending CNN town halls about the primary, their rivals, their policies and their past stances.

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Eric Bradner, Gregory Krieg
Dan Merica, CNN
CNN — Days before the South Carolina primary, presidential candidates faced questions from voters attending CNN town halls about the primary, their rivals, their policies and their past stances.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders faced pointed questions from attendees in Charleston on Monday night, as well as attacks from former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and businessman Tom Steyer. Buttigieg's and Steyer's eagerness to attack Sanders showed that the front-runner is now the candidate everyone else in the Democratic race is targeting, with the Palmetto State's primary coming Saturday and Super Tuesday looming next week.

On Wednesday, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she wouldn't step aside before the Democratic convention if none of her presidential rivals reach the number of delegates required to clinch the party's nomination before then. Former Vice President Joe Biden displayed his ability to make deep connections over faith. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave his clearest answer yet on stop-and-frisk policing. And Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar expanded her definition of the Midwest.

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Here are eight takeaways from the town halls on Monday and Wednesday:

The front-runner takes the hits

On the night before he took the debate stage in South Carolina as the unquestioned Democratic primary front-runner, Sanders faced a lot of the same questions his rivals later weaponized against him onstage.

Sanders on Monday stood by his comments praising the literacy program implemented by Cuba's late leader Fidel Castro, even after they drew bipartisan criticism. He denied reporting that he considered a primary challenge against President Barack Obama -- something former Vice President Joe Biden has used to attack to criticize the senator in recent days. And, faced with continued questions over how he would pay for his massive government programs, Sanders pulled out papers he said would explain how his plans were all paid for.

His answers, though, were unlikely to satisfy the other candidates or their supporters.

Sanders suggested the members of Congress who criticized his praise of Castro's literacy program are "coincidentally" backing other candidates. But the two most vocal critics, Florida Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, have not endorsed anyone.

And the documents Sanders brought with him to the town hall, which were emailed out by his campaign, look a lot like what he's already made public.

Sanders has consistently denied ever weighing a run against Obama -- saying a recent report in The Atlantic that he did was wrong.

There was also the question of the aggressive online behavior of some of his supporters.

"I'm not going to tell you we don't have some jerks out there," he said.

But, Sanders added: "I do want to say to those folks: We do not want your support if you think that what our campaign is about is making ugly attacks on other candidates. We don't want you."

Buttigieg aims directly at Sanders

Buttigieg used his CNN town hall on Monday to signal how he is approaching the next phase of the Democratic primary: all Bernie Sanders, all the time.

Buttigieg started by contrasting himself with Sanders, telling the South Carolina voters that he believes "in calling people into the tent, not calling them names online."

The line is a subtle jab at some of the virulent comments Sanders supporters make online.

Then Buttigieg hit Sanders for the senator's laudatory comments about Castro, asking Democrats if they "want to be explaining why our nominee is encouraging people to look on the bright side of the Castro regime going into the election of our lives." And Buttigieg, when asked why he should be the one to take on Sanders, said, "I'm the best alternative ... because I'm the only one who's beat him this year, anywhere."

Steyer swings at Sanders, too

On Monday night, Steyer had just walked onto the stage -- and hadn't even been asked a question yet -- when he lit into Sanders.

"I don't think a government takeover of major parts of the American economy is a good idea," Steyer said of Sanders' policy proposals. "I don't think it's good for working people, I don't think it's good for families."

He said he knows "unchecked capitalism has failed," but the answer, he argued, was to "break the corporate stranglehold" on the government.

Steyer later said it is "inappropriate" for Sanders to praise Castro's regime for its literacy efforts.

The businessman said he would never praise "unelected leaders of countries who completely control without any form of democracy, justice or equality."

Warren is ready to run all the way to the convention

Warren said she's willing to take her presidential campaign to the convention this summer if none of the candidates clinch a winning delegate majority during the primary.

According to party rules, if none of the candidates reach that number, Democratic superdelegates -- who are not elected -- would get to vote on a second ballot. That could create an awkward -- and potentially contentious -- floor fight as candidates jockey to win over those unbound delegates.

Asked by an audience member on Wednesday night why the person who gets the most votes shouldn't be awarded the nomination, Warren said that the rules set a higher bar -- and she would be open to fighting to the last.

She also suggested that Bernie Sanders' argument that a candidate with a plurality should be declared the nominee was disingenuous, noting that his 2016 campaign, despite losing to Hillary Clinton, publicly argued that convention superdelegates should consider swinging the contest in his favor.

In the aftermath of that primary, in which the superdelegates overwhelmingly backed Clinton, Sanders and others struck a deal to dilute their power. Unlike four years ago, they will only be able to vote on a second ballot in 2020.

"The way I see this is, you write the rules before you know where everybody stands. And then you stick with those rules. So for me, Bernie had a big hand in writing these rules. I didn't write them," Warren said.

Biden shows his humanity

Biden reminded voters on Wednesday what made him a beloved figure in the Democratic Party.

Biden, with tears in his eyes, connected with a pastor whose wife was killed in the 2015 Charleston church shooting by reflecting on the repeated tragedies that have impacted his life, including the death of his wife and daughter in 1972 and the death of his son Beau in 2015.

"I kind of know what it's like to lose family. And my heart goes out to you," Biden said, his eyes welling.

The answer showcased Biden's ability to connect with voters on an emotional level, a skill that even the former vice president's fiercest critics often commend.

Biden recalled how he came back to Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of the shooting that killed nine people in 2015, the Sunday after the shooting "because I had just lost my son and I wanted some hope."

"I don't know how you've dealt with it, reverend, but the way I've been able to deal with when my wife was killed and my daughter was killed and my son died, I've only been able to deal with it by realizing they're part of my being," Biden said. "My son, Beau, was my soul."

South Carolina is central to Biden's campaign and he needs a good showing here to propel his campaign.

But on Wednesday night, Biden's answer was about more than just electoral politics -- it was about the former vice president's ability to show empathy for another human and his power to overcome personal tragedy.

Bloomberg finds his footing in town hall format

Bloomberg's first two debates were struggles -- but on the town hall stage Wednesday night, he looked more comfortable.

The former New York City mayor gave his clearest answer yet on the stop-and-frisk policing he implemented during his time in office.

"We just did it much too much and an awful lot of innocent people got stopped who didn't have guns. And it was my mistake, and I apologized for it," Bloomberg said.

He also slammed Sanders on the one issue where Bloomberg has been to the left of where Sanders was in the early 1990s: Gun control.

He said of Sanders' past opposition to the Brady Act, "If that isn't being in NRA's pocket, I don't know what is."

Klobuchar expands the meaning of Midwest

Klobuchar's core argument is her electability in the Midwest -- where she's cruised in Senate races in a battleground state and believes she could reverse the Democratic losses of 2016.

But a South Carolina voter, feeling excluded, pressed her on whether that Midwestern pitch would isolate the coasts.

Klobuchar said she actually defines the Midwest as "the states that feel that they've been left behind some in terms of focus in the 2016 election."

"I would include states like South Carolina, and my plan is actually to build a beautiful blue wall of Democratic votes in this coalition of independents and moderate Republicans around states including states like South Carolina, and make Donald Trump pay for it," she said.

Klobuchar regularly touts connections to the Midwest, arguing her "grit" and "determination" come from her upbringing in Minnesota.

Candidates condemn Trump's response to coronavirus

All four of the Democratic candidates who had town halls on Wednesday night faulted Trump's response to the spread of the coronavirus, after news broke that Vice President Mike Pence will now lead the administration's effort.

Klobuchar said she would "put a medical professional in charge."

"I think we want to make sure that everything is done in the right way and that's the job of Congress to perform oversight," she added.

Warren announced she would use border wall funding to combat coronavirus and brought up the face that Pence, as governor of Indiana, hesitated in green-lighting a needle exchange program designed to stop the spread of HIV in a rural Indiana county, contributing to the outbreak spread and at least 200 people were infected.

"Do keep in mind that this Vice President has dealt with a public health emergency before -- in Indiana. And what was his approach? To put politics over science and let a serious virus expand in his state and cost people lives," she said.

Biden lamented the fact that the United States does not have experts in China, and that fact that Trump is now "on the same page as the scientists."

And Bloomberg, after he was informed Pence was leading the charge, sarcastically said, "I feel so much better."

"The bottom line," he continued, "is we are not ready for this kind of thing."

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