UPDATE 3-Sanders comes under fire early at South Carolina Democratic debate

(Updates with start of debate)

CHARLESTON, S.C., Feb 25 (Reuters) - Surging front-runner Bernie Sanders came under fire early in the Democratic debate in South Carolina on Tuesday, as rival Michael Bloomberg said Russia was helping the senator because it knew he would lose in November to Republican President Donald Trump.

Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor who was pummeled by rivals at the last debate, made reference to reports that U.S. intelligence officials believe Russia is trying to help Sanders, an independent senator and self-avowed democratic socialist.

"Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States, and that’s why Russia is helping you get elected so you lose to him," Bloomberg told Sanders.

Sanders shot back, saying: Hey Mr Putin, if I'm president of the United States, trust me you're not going to interfere in any more elections," in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The debate is the third this month and the 10th overall for the Democrats vying for the right to challenge Trump in the Nov. 3 election. It is their final encounter before Saturday's South Carolina primary and next week's 14 vital Super Tuesday contests.

The pressure for a strong performance is high for all of the contenders. Joe Biden, the national front-runner not so long ago, needs to win South Carolina to keep his campaign alive, while Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer are desperately battling for relevance.

Sanders has taken command of the race after strong showings in the first three nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

His momentum has alarmed a Democratic establishment wary that his aggressive economic equality and social justice agenda will lead to defeat against Trump.

Warren, a progressive ally of Sanders, said he was winning because progressive ideas were popular.

"I think I would make a better president than Bernie. And the reason for that is that getting a progressive agenda enacted is going to be really hard," she said. "I dug in, I did the work, and then Bernie's team trashed me."

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Jarrett Renshaw; Additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Michael Martina; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Peter Cooney)

02/26/2020 1:27

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