INTERNATIONAL NEWS - Frontrunner Bernie Sanders will be in the firing line as the other Democratic White House candidates seek to derail his push for the nomination at a crucial debate Tuesday in South Carolina.
The Vermont senator is in pole position heading into South Carolina's primary Saturday and the debate could offer the final opportunity for other Democratic hopefuls, Joe Biden in particular, to halt his momentum.
Sanders, 78, emerged largely unscathed from the last debate and went on to win the Nevada caucuses, but he is expected to come under fire this time from all directions.
Besides claiming that Sanders is too left-wing to defeat President Donald Trump, his rivals are expected to attack him over his praise of some aspects of communist rule in countries like Cuba.
Sanders finished in a virtual tie with former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg in the first nominating contest, in Iowa, and then won in New Hampshire and Nevada.
Seven candidates will take part in the debate beginning at 8:00 pm (0100 GMT Wednesday) in Charleston, South Carolina, the 10th debate of the campaign cycle.
Besides Sanders, Biden and Buttigieg, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, media magnate Michael Bloomberg and fellow billionaire Tom Steyer will also be on stage.
Bloomberg, 78, seeks to rebound from a disastrous performance in his first debate and prove he is a credible, moderate alternative to the leftist Sanders.
The 77-year-old Biden has also been staking out the center and will be hoping to bounce back from dismal performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he finished fourth and fifth respectively.
The former vice president came in second in the Nevada caucuses, but with 20.2 percent, he was well behind Sanders' 46.8 percent.
Biden has been counting on strong support among African-American voters in South Carolina to recharge his flagging campaign.
But Sanders has surged in polling in the southern state in recent weeks and Biden's lead there has dwindled to single digits.
He hardly helped himself with campaign trail gaffes Monday.
At one event, Biden told supporters he was "a Democratic candidate for the United States Senate." At another he claimed to have worked on the 2015 Paris climate accord with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997.
Another sign of trouble: a new poll showing support for Biden slipping among black voters, a core Democratic primary constituency.
The latest national Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that some 26 percent of black voters said they would vote for Sanders in their state's primary, up seven points from the previous poll conducted January 29 to February 19.
Biden's share among black voters shed 10 points, to 23 percent.
A Sanders victory in South Carolina, or even a close second, could set him up for a knockout blow on "Super Tuesday" March 3, when 14 states go to the polls and a whopping one third of all delegates in the Democratic race are up for grabs.
Some Democrats argue that Sanders, who calls himself a "democratic socialist," is too far to the left for many Americans and would be a weak opponent against Trump in November.
That is a line of attack which the 38-year-old centrist Buttigieg employed in the last debate, when he called Sanders "polarizing."
Sanders clearly believes he is more in touch with the sentiments of Democratic voters than his rivals.
"I know if you look at the media, they say, 'Bernie's ideas are radical and they're extreme, they're out of the mainstream,'" he said at a CNN town hall Monday in Charleston.
"I don't think that that's true," he added.
"Is guaranteeing health care to all people as a human right a radical idea? Is addressing the existential threat of climate change a radical idea?"
Sanders' questions were met with chants of 'No' from the crowd, leading him to say, "I rest my case."
Sanders also defended remarks he made about Cuba's late leader Fidel Castro which came under attack from the Biden and Buttigieg campaigns.
"I have been extremely consistent and critical of all authoritarian regimes all over the world, including Cuba, including Nicaragua, including Saudi Arabia, including China, including Russia," Sanders said.
At the same time, Castro "initiated a major literacy program," he said. "I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing."
Reacting on Monday to earlier similar comments Sanders made about Castro, Biden's campaign released one of its strongest attacks yet on the Democratic frontrunner.
It said Sanders "seems to have found more inspiration in the Soviets, Sandinistas, Chavistas, and Castro than in America."