Democrats were bracing for a fiery debate in Charleston on Tuesday, as most of the party’s presidential contenders prepared to take aim at Bernie Sanders in an effort to wound the clear frontrunner ahead of Saturday’s primary in South Carolina.
Ahead of the debate, former US vice-president Joe Biden, who is desperate for a win to save his campaign, and Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, both indicated that they would go on the attack against Mr Sanders to argue the case that the self-declared Vermont socialist could not beat Donald Trump in November’s US presidential election.
Mr Sanders established his frontrunner status with a big victory in Nevada, which followed his New Hampshire win and a razor-thin loss to Pete Buttigieg in Iowa. 
His rise has spread panic among rivals, who worry that the crowed field of moderates will make it hard for anyone to emerge to defeat the ultra-progressive US senator who lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina lawmaker and number three Democrat in the US House of Representatives, told the Financial Times that the other candidates should spend less time in the debate targeting Mr Bloomberg, who was pummelled in his first television appearance in Nevada last week, which eased the focus on Mr Sanders. 
Mr Clyburn — a friend of Mr Biden who is expected to endorse the former vice-president on Wednesday — said Mr Sanders would make it harder for Democrats in November’s congressional races. “I wouldn’t be wasting my time attacking Bloomberg. He is going to get his from the media and other places,” he said.
While Mr Biden, Mr Bloomberg and Mr Buttigieg are expected to tear into Mr Sanders, fellow progressive Ms Elizabeth Warren, who has been more reluctant to attack her nearest political rival, is expected to repeat her assault on Mr Bloomberg, after she resurrected her flagging campaign and raised millions of dollars following an attack on him in Nevada.
Mr Bloomberg is not on the ballot in South Carolina, but he will become a factor on Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states award a third of the delegates in the Democratic nomination race. He skipped a scheduled town hall on TV news channel CNN on Monday in order to prepare for the debate following his disastrous performance last week.
As Democrats wait anxiously to see to what extent Mr Bloomberg’s spending of several hundred million dollars will translate into votes, the party establishment has worked itself into a frenzy about the possibility that Mr Sanders could end up winning the nomination unless the field narrows significantly and rapidly.
The stakes in South Carolina are high. Mr Biden needs a win to convince voters that he has broad appeal and would be the strongest opponent against Mr Trump. 
Ms Warren is hoping to build on her Nevada debate performance to return to the top of the field. And Mr Buttigieg is trying to continue his momentum from Iowa and New Hampshire, but is polling in the low single digits with African Americans, who make up more than 60 per cent of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina. 
Mr Biden led Mr Sanders by four points in the latest NBC/Marist poll with 27 per cent, a steep fall from the 30-point lead he held over the field for much of last year.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager turned climate change activist, was in third place with 15 per cent, a validation of his decision to focus on the state where he has spent millions of dollars in an effort to boost his standing with black voters. 
Mr Buttigieg was in fourth place with 9 per cent, just a point ahead of Ms Warren. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator who surged into New Hampshire but has since faded, was in sixth place with just 5 per cent. 
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi