WASHINGTON, DC—Minutes into Wednesday night’s debate, Elizabeth Warren said, “I’d like to talk about 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.”
Welcome to the debate stage, Mike Bloomberg.
That remark set the combative tone of a Democratic presidential primary debate that featured more conflict between the candidates in its first half-hour than the previous months of debates featured combined. Warren in particular took the fight strongly to all of the other candidates, but saved her fiercest firepower for Bloomberg.
At one point she repeatedly pasted Bloomberg over nondisclosure agreements he has with women who have worked for his companies, insisting he could release them from them so they could talk.
Bloomberg responded that the agreements were “consensual” and that no one accused him of anything besides not liking his jokes. He talked about how many women he employs in leadership positions.
“I hope you heard his defence. ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’ That just doesn’t cut it,” Warren responded.
At debates, the cliche is to look for knockout punches, but that sequence was as close to an MMA ground-and-pound, where a fighter pins an opponent to the mat and wails away, as you’ll find in a verbal exchange.
The debate was the first for former New York Mayor and multi-billionaire philanthropist Bloomberg. A former Republican who flirted with a third-party run in 2016 before joining the Democratic Party, Bloomberg had a tough night as not just Warren but all the candidates laid into him from the start. The stop-and-frisk policies under his mayoralty in New York, his wealth, his history as a Republican were just some of the lines of attack, and he didn’t seem particularly able to respond well.
Wednesday’s nationally televised debate in Las Vegas came ahead of this Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, the third event in the presidential nomination contest that began in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this month and continues with the South Carolina primary Feb. 29, the “Super Tuesday” primaries on March 3 (when 14 states and one territory will vote on the same day), and proceeds throughout all the other states and territories into June.
Though he was one of the focal points of firepower in the debate, Bloomberg is not actually on the ballot in Nevada on Saturday — a late entrant in the race, he chose to skip contesting the four earliest states and spend his considerable money and the organizing efforts on trying to make a splash in the larger Super Tuesday states and those that come after. Having spent something on the order of $500 million so far, Bloomberg’s unconventional strategy comes with unprecedented financial muscle that has seen him rise to third place in national polls, just behind an apparently faltering Biden who once led the field.
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who has never joined the Democratic Party but has inspired a strong group of younger voters fanatical about his candidacy, has become the front-runner after winning the popular vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire (and splitting the delegates there with Buttigieg).
Bloomberg and Sanders faces off several times. Sanders called Bloomberg’s wealth “immoral” in a country where people on the street. Bloomberg said outright he did not think Sanders could beat Trump, and snapped at one point, “Don’t throw out capitalism. Other countries tried that, it’s called communism, and it didn’t work.”
“Democratic socialism, it’s not communism, that’s a cheap shot Mr. Bloomberg,” Sanders responded, discussing universal health care common in countries like Canada and Denmark.
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“What a wonderful country, our best known socialist is a millionaire with three homes,” Bloomberg said of Sanders.
The contest going into the debate seemed to have formed into Bernie vs. Everyone, with the other, mostly more moderate, candidates jockeying to be the other finalist going head to head with him for the right to take on Trump in the general election. Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Warren, and Joe Biden have each been trying to gain enough support and momentum to take on that role before Bloomberg’s money tries to wrestle it away from them in March — a task complicated somewhat by the New York billionaire’s presence onstage as evident in their attacks against him.
Buttigieg, who actually leads the delegate count so far after strong performances in the first two contests, had been the focus of attacks in the most recent debates, but was less prominent Wednesday except in several tense exchanges with Klobuchar. His own pitch was as a goldilocks medium between a socialist and a billionaire. “Let’s put forward somebody who is actually a Democrat,” he said, in reference to both Bloomberg and Sanders’ recent non-membership in the party. “We shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another who wants to buy this party out.”
Amy Klobuchar has been hoping an unexpectedly strong New Hampshire third-place finish — credited to a strong debate performance there — would spring her to greater heights, though national polls and those in Nevada and South Carolina still have her in single digits. She jousted with Buttigieg, asking him at one point, “Are you saying I’m dumb?” and going on the attack against him when he questioned some of her senate votes: “You have not been in the arena doing the work. You’ve memorized a bunch of talking points,” but also emphasizing the common ground she shared with all the other candidates against Trump.
Warren, who was briefly the front-runner in polls last fall before disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, has been running a campaign more ideologically aligned with Sanders’, with similar social democrat policies offered with a heavy dose of technocratic planning detail and promises to overhaul processes to clean up government. She had perhaps the strongest debate of the field, lively on the attack but also turning regularly to her own policy proposals.
Biden, meanwhile, is fighting to remain in contention after months of being the presumed front-runner led to fourth- and fifth-place finishes in the earliest states and a commensurate drop in fundraising. He was forceful throughout the debate in pointing to his experience. “I’m the only one on this stage who actually got anything done on health care. I’m the guy, Obama said go and get the votes,” he said. Often though, he had to fight to get his voice into the discussion. When the topic was the president of Mexico, at one point, he began shouting when the moderators wouldn’t recognize him. “I’m the only one who knows this man, and met him. C’mon man.”
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