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Bernie Sanders targeted but hits back at Democratic rivals in debate

CHARLESTON, US: Democratic White House hopefuls rounded on leftist front runner Bernie Sanders at a feisty debate on Tuesday, attacking him as too extreme for US voters and a flawed challenger to President Donald Trump.

Mr Joe Biden, who needs a victory in South Carolina's crucial primary on Saturday to keep his campaign alive, hit Mr Sanders as soft on gun control, while billionaire Michael Bloomberg claimed Russia was working to help Mr Sanders win the nomination - betting he would be defeated in November.

And Mr Sanders' rivals joined in savaging the self-described democratic socialist as too radical to appeal to a broad swathe of Americans.

Fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren and centrists Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, all desperate to halt Mr Sanders' momentum, laid into his ability to deliver on costly programmes such as universal health care and tuition-free college.

Mr Buttigieg, a 38-year-old military veteran presenting himself as a unifier, warned a fight between Mr Sanders and Mr Trump would spell "chaos" and divide the nation.

He said: "It ends up as four more years of Donald Trump".

Mr Sanders is in pole position in South Carolina, the last step before March 3 when 14 states vote and a whopping third of all delegates - the representatives who pick the nominee at the Democratic Party's July convention - are up for grabs.

HEALTHCARE A HUMAN RIGHT

The 78-year-old hit back at the charge his policies were too "radical", insisting such ideas "exist in countries all over the world", including the notion that healthcare is a human right.

"The way we beat Trump, which is what everybody up here wants, is we need a campaign of energy and excitement," Mr Sanders said. "We need to bring working people back into the Democratic Party."

A Reuters-Ipsos poll conducted in the past week and released on Tuesday shows him widening his lead over his rivals. Around 26 per cent of registered Democrats and independent voters said Mr Sanders was their first choice, with Mr Bloomberg and Mr Biden a joint second at 15 per cent each. - AFP, REUTERS

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