Six Democratic presidential hopefuls met on the debate stage in Las Vegas, but it was the newcomer, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who received the most attention, and none of it positive. Here are some key takeaways from the debate.
THE $60 BILLION PUNCHING BAG
Bloomberg was the object of scorn, ridicule and contempt. And that was just in the first five minutes of the debate.
With all candidates flashing heat, a measure of the urgency they feel to survive in what is becoming an increasingly bitter nomination fight, the attacks focused on Bloomberg were a clear measure of his perceived strength. He has spent more than $400 million so far on advertising that in turn has given him strong standing in state and national polls.
Sen. Bernie Sanders recalled Bloomberg’s support of stop-and-frisk policing targeting minorities. Sen. Elizabeth Warren recalled how Bloomberg had mocked women for being “horse-faced” and “fat” and compared him to Trump. Sen. Amy Klobuchar quipped that “I don’t think you look at Donald Trump and say I think we need someone richer in the White House.” Former Vice President Joe Biden said Bloomberg condoned racist police practices, and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said Bloomberg was trying to “buy out” the Democratic Party.
But his biggest struggle came when Warren hammered him over allegations of sexism and mistreatment of women in his company.
Bloomberg attempted to defend his record and deflect the attacks on him by turning them into attacks on President Donald Trump. And he effectively raised questions about whether Americans would embrace a socialist like Sanders.
But the glare was harsh, and the attacks landed with force.
Even if you are worth $60 billion it is hard to win a 5-on-1 fight.
NOT THE ERA OF GOOD FEELING
For eight debates, the Democrats largely tiptoed around disagreements except for desultory disputes about health care policies. But on Wednesday night, everyone came with sharp elbows.
It was almost impossible to keep track of the fights. Buttigieg and Klobuchar tussled over experience and the Minnesota senator forgetting the name of Mexico’s president. Buttigieg and Sanders argued about the Vermont senator’s big-ticket plans and refusal to release his full medical records. Warren clashed with Buttigieg and Klobuchar over their health care plans. And everyone piled onto Bloomberg.
The former New York mayor was the only candidate who didn’t really go on the attack, other than the occasional swipe at the self-declared socialist Sanders.
In the end, that dynamic may again benefit Sanders, who leads in the polls and is watching his rivals spend most of their energy tearing each other down rather than targeting him.
RETURN OF WARREN THE FIGHTER
Warren rose to prominence in the Democratic field with a fighting spirit that defined the early months of her campaign. But her disappointing showings in Iowa and New Hampshire left her campaign struggling.
On Wednesday, she decided to get back into the fight.
She slammed Bloomberg — that was no surprise as she’s been an antagonist of billionaires playing in politics for years. But Warren also attacked Klobuchar, saying her health care plan was just a “Post-it note.” She accused Buttigieg of being in debt to his rich campaign supporters and having a health care plan that was just a “PowerPoint” designed by his consultants. She slammed fellow liberal Sanders, accusing him of letting his supporters trash anyone with a plan.
But it was her prosecutorial approach to Bloomberg over his company’s treatment of women that stood out.
Whatever happens on Saturday, and beyond, Warren regained her fighting voice.
THE GENERATIONAL DIVIDE
Buttigieg, who finished in the top two in Iowa and New Hampshire with Sanders, reserved some of his harshest criticism for Sanders, a man 40 years his elder.
He warned that Democrats could wake up after more than a dozen states vote on Super Tuesday on March 3 and have only Bloomberg and Sanders left on the ballot. He then quipped that the party may want to nominate “someone who is actually a Democrat.”
The crowd inside the Las Vegas casino hadn’t yet finished chuckling and hooting when he continued by saying Sanders “wants to burn this party down” and Bloomberg “wants to buy this party out.”
Sanders, a senator from Vermont and avowed democratic socialist, responded by saying that Buttigieg’s campaign has been too reliant on “billionaire” big donors, touching off another intense exchange.
Their back and forth continued through criticism of Sanders supporters who have frequently been accused of bullying behavior online. Sanders said he personally had denounced such behavior. This prompted Buttigieg to say he believed the senator but, “What it is it about your campaign in particular that seems to be motivating this type of behavior?”
On this night, Buttigieg had the most at stake, with Sanders standing in Nevada polls well ahead of the man who has run even with him in the first two contests.
But Sanders did nothing likely to undermine his standing as the leading candidate so far.
DOES KLOBENTUM CONTINUE?
The last debate was rocket fuel for Klobuchar. Her strong performance vaulted her to a third-place finish in New Hampshire and onto Nevada. But it may be hard for lightning to strike twice.
The Minnesota senator often got drowned out in the high-octane bickering Wednesday, or pulled down into the mud. At one point she pulled from her supply of ready quips, saying of Sanders and Bloomberg as they argued over capitalism that there is “a boxing rematch in Vegas on Saturday and these guys should go down there.”
The most damaging exchange was between Klobuchar and Buttigieg, who have tangled before. Asked about her embarrassing gaffe in forgetting the name of Mexico’s president, she had to fend off Buttigieg, who claimed it disproved her argument that Washington has prepared her to be president. She also alternately scrapped with and aligned with Warren.
“Are you calling me dumb?” Klobuchar asked Buttigieg incredulously. Later, she added, “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.”
A little over a week ago in New Hampshire, Klobuchar clearly stood out. This time was much harder as everyone battled for survival.
DID BIDEN REVIVE HIS CAMPAIGN?
Another candidate in need of a big night to reverse perceptions that his campaign was struggling was Biden.
For a good portion of the debate, he receded. He joined in the attacks on Bloomberg, but largely avoided some of the more testy exchanges.
When Warren said that Biden was “in the pocket” of Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, Biden fought back. He also tried to return to his “Middle Class Joe” biography about his family’s financial struggles.
He did not offer voters any new rationale for voting for him.