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Democrats slam U.S. COVID-19 response, pitch gun control in S.C. debate

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Democrats slam U.S. COVID-19 response, pitch gun control in S.C. debate
The seven Democratic candidates in the CBS News Democratic Debate stand together at the start of the event at the Gaillard Center on Tuesday in Charleston, S.C.: Fom left to right, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer. Photo by Richard Ellis/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 25 (UPI) -- Ahead of the South Carolina primary this weekend, seven Democratic presidential candidates took the stage in Charleston on Tuesday night, sparring over the global coronavirus outbreak, gun legislation and foreign policy in the Middle East.

The candidates were critical of President Donald Trump's response to COVID-19, the deadly strain of coronavirus that originated in China and is the subject of a pandemic warning from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, participating in his second primary debate, attacked Trump for removing pandemic specialists and cutting CDC funding.

"There's nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing," Bloomberg said. "We don't have the organization we need. This is a very serious thing. As you can see, the stock market is falling apart because people are really worried, and they should be. We don't have anybody to respond."

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Front-runner Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said Trump has not been forthcoming about how his administration will fight the disease or its national threat. The president speculated Tuesday that COVID-19 would soon go away.

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"In the White House today, we have a self-described 'great genius' -- self-described -- and this great genius has told us that this coronavirus is going to end in two months," Sanders said. "April is the magical date that this great scientist we have in the White House has determined -- I wish I was kidding, that is what he said."

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who surged in the race with a solid performance in New Hampshire two weeks ago, sought to raise awareness about the virus and advised Americans to consult the CDC website. She said she would support quarantining those affected by the virus, if it came to that.

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"What we have to do is make sure we have treatment for those Americans and that they are in a quarantine situation," she said. "We don't want to expose people but we want to give them help."

Former Vice President Joe Biden pointed to his work on the Ebola outbreak during the Obama administration and said the president of the United States must be open and clear and let the American people know what is going on.

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"I was part of making sure that pandemic did not get to the United States, saved millions of lives," he said. "I helped set up ... the president's office on diseases that are pandemic diseases."

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Gun legislation

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said gun control measures are being stymied in Congress and pushed for legislation intended to curb mass shootings and other forms of gun violence in the United States.

"I've been in the Senate when I've seen gun safety legislation introduced, get a majority and then doesn't pass because of the filibuster," Warren said. "Understand this: The filibuster is giving a veto to the gun industry."

Buttigieg agreed, criticizing Sanders for his past votes on proposed gun regulations and calling upon the historical impact of the filibuster in South Carolina.

"We are in the state where Strom Thurmond used the filibuster to block civil rights legislation repeatedly. No less a traditional Senate figure than Harry Reid has said it has to go. It has got to go. Otherwise, Washington will not deliver," he said.

Sanders acknowledged that he made "bad votes" on gun laws in the past, but pointed to his current voting record and said he wants to expand background checks and end the loophole for firearm sales at gun shows.

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"At the end of the day, we need to rally the American people," he said. "Here is the good news: Because of all of these disgusting and horrific mass shootings, the American people now understand that we must be aggressive on gun safety, not be dictated to by the [National Rifle Association].

"And I am proud that I have a D- voting record from the NRA. If elected president, it will get worse than that."

Billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, in his return to the debate stage after missing last week's in Las Vegas, declared that the gun industry has effectively bought the Senate and called for term limits of 12 years for every member in both houses of Congress.

"The gun manufacturers own the Senate of the United States, so even though more than 90 percent of Americans want mandatory background checks on every gun purchase, we can't get it through the Senate," he said.

Klobuchar touted her legislation proposing to end loopholes and highlighted the importance of her winning support among hunters in the Midwest for new gun legislation.

"Having someone that can lead the ticket that can bring people with her is the way you get gun safety regulation," she said. "I look at these proposals and say, 'Do they hurt my uncle Dick and the deer stand?' They do not. So being from a proud hunting state and still being able to pass this legislation is the key."

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Middle East policy

Warren reinforced her stance that she would recall all combat troops from the Middle East, declaring that the United States is not winning. She called for the United States to use "all of the tools in our toolbox" to fight terrorism and human rights abusers.

"We need to know the difference between our friends and between dictators who would do us harm, and we need to be nicer to our friends than we are to dictators," she said. "We need not to cut and run on our allies. We need an approach that keeps us safe by using all of our tools in a measured way."

Bloomberg said he wouldn't support recalling all U.S. troops in the Middle East, noting that such forces are necessary to avert terrorist plots that originate overseas.

"We have to have some troops in places where terrorists congregate, and to not do so is just irresponsible," he said. "We shouldn't be fighting wars that we can't win. We should go to war only as a last resort. Nobody argues with that. But this is a dangerous world, and if we haven't learned that after 9/11, I don't know what's going to teach us what to do."

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Buttigieg disagreed and instead placed focus on foreign intelligence.

"We don't need to have ground troops anywhere terrorists can gather because terrorists can gather anywhere in the world," he said. "But we do need intelligence capabilities and specialists on the ground."

The South Carolina primary is scheduled for Saturday.

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