From the outset of Wednesday’s boxing match of a debate in Las Vegas, Democrats piled on Mike Bloomberg and never relented, forcing the billionaire former New York mayor to clumsily explain his controversial stop-and-frisk policy, history of sexual harassment complaints from women and the exorbitant amount of his own fortune he has pumped into his campaign.
Bloomberg hadn’t debated before television cameras in more than a decade, and it showed, lacking at times clear and assertive answers to questions that everyone knew were coming.
But as the newcomer to the stage endured blow after blow, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential primary – both nationally and in the Nevada caucuses Saturday – skated by without the same level of attention from his peers.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has built a double-digit lead nationally, according to some polls, walked away Wednesday largely unscathed. He had to defend his brand of democratic socialism, explain his decision not to release all medical records and fight off accusations from former mayor Pete Buttigieg that he wants to “burn this party down.” But it was mostly a debate on his terms, and any pushback got lost under the onslaught of Bloomberg – who isn’t even competing in Nevada.
It might say something about the state of the race.
With time running out to make a splash before the Nevada caucuses and Super Tuesday on March 3, candidates were at their most combative, led by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who had her strongest debate performance yet.
But by focusing more energy on Bloomberg over Sanders, they seemed to acknowledge the current landscape: Sanders, with his army of young progressives, isn’t fading from frontrunner status anytime soon, and it’s the surging Bloomberg, who is eroding each of their support with massive television-advertising buys, whom they must knock down to have a shot.
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Led by delegate-rich California and Texas, 14 states representing about 30% of the Democratic electorate goes to the polls on Super Tuesday, when Bloomberg makes his appearance on ballots for the first time. Unless someone from the muddled field of non-Sanders candidates breaks out in Nevada or South Carolina next week, the senator from Vermont has a chance to build a big lead in delegates that could be hard to overtake.
“The contenders on the stage were taking the long game, and ironically taking the long game only after two small early contests,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. “They were anticipating that Bloomberg’s move in the national polling was going to translate to an acceleration into the Super Tuesday contests.”
He said the candidates are staring at someone in Sanders likely to finish either first or second in every Super Tuesday state who could also win, at worst, the popular votes of three of the first four contests.
“So it’s a fool’s errand to engage Sanders and his supporters right now,” Paleologos said. “It’s a better strategic play to let Sanders and his momentum play itself out, hope he doesn’t get enough to win a majority and to play the cards they’re going to have.”
In Nevada Saturday, Sanders appears well-positioned to tighten his grip as the favorite, and unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, he could have a chance to produce his first sizable win. The most recent poll in the state had Sanders up 7 points over his nearest rival.
“I think the surprise would be if he doesn’t win by 10 points or so,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The question is how the other ones group down below, and does this winnow the field a little bit?”
He pointed to former Vice President Joe Biden, who once led polling in Nevada, as someone who needs to “show something moving forward,” likely a second-place finish at minimum.
“It seemed that (Wednesday) they were certainly playing more to the Super Tuesday crowd,” Damore said of the debate, “knowing Nevada is going to happen, Sanders is probably going to win, but let’s start thinking about what happens in early March. I think the real fear is they all run out of money and Bloomberg is the only one left.”
Saturday is a particularly important test for the candidates because of Nevada’s diversity, led by a large population of Latino voters. It would give Sanders even more steam heading into South Carolina, which has a heavily African American Democratic electorate and where some polling has shown Sanders suddenly statistically tied with Biden, who long held a commanding lead there.
“It would be more predictive in both the primaries and the national election of how they will fare in the rest of the U.S.,” said Robert Lang, a professor of public policy at UNLV. He pointed to the diversity of Clark County, home of Las Vegas, where 75% of the population lives. “This is a nice test to see how you would do in Phoenix, Denver, Atlanta, Dallas. It’s kind of a mini-version of L.A. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the first contest of the election.”
“Take the other two states and just discount them,” Lang said of Iowa and New Hampshire. “They’re historically in the path of a president. But I don’t think they have any reflection on the rest of the United States. They’re just outliers – too small, too old, too white, too slow-growing.”
Warren has gotten the highest marks from the debate, producing its most memorable moments with her attacks against Bloomberg on stop-and-frisk and nondisclosure agreements he had women sign regarding sexual harassment abuse in the workplace.
“I hope you heard what his defense was: ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’” Warren said, right after Bloomberg went over his record of employing and promoting women in business and city hall. “The mayor needs to stand on his record.”
In a perfectly executed punch, Warren started the debate saying: “I’d like to talk who we’re running against: A billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
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It was the version of Warren that resembled the “fighter” she regularly casts herself on the campaign trail. During the debate, the campaign announced Warren had the single-best hour of fundraising to date. She now needs the debate performance to translate to a late surge in Nevada – the sort of bounce that Sen. Amy Klobuchar got in New Hampshire after her strong debate there.
But could Warren’s moment be too late? Unlike New Hampshire, Nevadans have already cast ballots through early voting. Warren desperately needs a top-tier finish in Nevada to demonstrate momentum.
Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, engaged in multiple heated exchanges with Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, that seemed to reveal some built-up hostility. The two candidates are competing for the same middle lane of Democrats, and the rise of Klobuchar might have cost Buttigieg a win in New Hampshire.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar both face challenges in Nevada because of the state’s more diverse electorate. Neither have polled well among minority voters. But both need to show traction there – and perhaps finish ahead of the other – to show they can compete as the primary starts to nationalize.
Buttigieg attacked Klobuchar Wednesday for not remembering the name of the president of Mexico and later criticized her Senate votes to make English the official language of the U.S. and to confirm President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees.
Klobuchar heard enough, quipping: “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” Klobuchar said.
Biden, who has faded in polls since his disappointing fourth-place finish in Iowa and fifth-place in New Hampshire, was the subject of few jabs from his opponents, a break from past debates. Like his opponents, he also went straight at Bloomberg, whose rising numbers in polls nationally came at Biden’s expense.
“In terms of who can beat Donald Trump,” Biden said, responding to an electability argument made by Bloomberg, “NBC did a poll yesterday that says Joe Biden is best equipped to beat Donald Trump. It said I can beat him those toss-up states, too, the states we have to win. I’m ahead by 8 points across the board.”
For Biden, Nevada and South Carolina present a moment of truth. For months, his campaign has circled his support among minority voters as his greatest strength, setting up South Carolina, in particular, as something of an early firewall. If he can’t win there, questions will mount about where exactly he can win.
If Wednesday’s debate proved anything it’s that the search for a Democrat who can compete with Sanders is as wide open as ever – especially when considering Bloomberg’s poor night.
Perhaps the most telling moment about the 2020 Democratic primary came near the end when all the candidates were asked whether the nominee with the most delegates should automatically be the nominee if no one gets a majority.
Five of the candidates said no, hinting at the long-drawn-out primary process and the reality that – not only might they fall short of the 1,991 delegates needed to secure the nomination – they might not finish first. Only Sanders answered yes.
“I think that the will of the people should prevail, yes,” Sanders said.
Reach Joey Garrison and on Twitter @joeygarrison.