Can Bloomberg Take the Heat at Tonight’s Debate?

Here are five things to watch for.
February 19, 2020, 10:45pm
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg speaks at a campaign event in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)​

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LAS VEGAS — Mike Bloomberg has spent more than $400 million on advertising to get to this moment — a place on the debate stage alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar Wednesday night.

The billionaire ex-mayor’s eye-popping ad spending has left him floating largely above the fray as the rest of the Democrats have scrapped and clawed for votes in the early states. But his rise in the polls has triggered a rise in media scrutiny — and barbs from the other campaigns.

Bloomberg’s opponents know that, and tonight’s debate will be their best chance to come after him. Here are five questions about what the rest of the party will launch at him — and what they might also be forced to reckon with.

Can Bloomberg handle himself?

Bloomberg’s opponents will likely waste no time highlighting all the ways Bloomberg’s not a real Democrat for voters: His views aout stop-and-frisk, recent nasty comments about transgendered people, calls to cut welfare programs, his 2004 endorsement of George W. Bush, refusal to back Obama in 2008, and even recent support for a variety of GOP candidates.

Bloomberg and Sanders have been sniping at each other for more than a week. Bloomberg has attacked Sanders for not reining in his nastiest supporters, while Bernie responded by highlighting Bloomberg's previous chumminess with Donald Trump.

Biden, Warren, and Klobuchar have also chimed in with their own attacks against Bloomberg, who threatens to cut into all of their support and leave Sanders the front-runner in the race.

Will Warren torpedo into Bloomberg?

Warren seems to be the candidate most genuinely pissed at Bloomberg for jumping into the race. While Sanders uses Bloomberg and his wealth as a useful foil, Warren seems to take it personally that he's trying to buy the race — and very clearly remembers his past support of Republicans, as he opposed Warren in her 2012 senate campaign.

He also directly criticized her onstage during a gun control event he hosted in Iowa last summer that she agreed to attend, a petty moment that stuck in the craw of some Warren staff. She's fading in the race and going after Bloomberg could both pay political dividends and let her get some personal vengeance.

Will Bernie have to answer for his past opposition to immigration reform?

Bloomberg's rise in the polls is the biggest immediate threat for everyone not named Sanders in the race as he threatens to siphon off huge blocks of moderate voters. But Sanders is the front-runner and other candidates might try hitting Sanders from the left, like Hillary Clinton did last time en route to the nomination.

They began that approach last debate, knocking Sanders for his past votes on gun control. But heading into Hispanic- and Asian-heavy Nevada and a much more diverse slate of Super Tuesday states, his opponents might turn to hammering him for his 2007 vote against comprehensive immigration reform and past views that immigration undercut American workers' wages.

Does Biden pick a fight or fade into the background?

Biden has struggled on the debate stage throughout the campaign, often all but disappearing during debates when he wasn't stumbling over his words. But up until now, he's been the target of others' attacks, aside from a few squabbles with Sanders over Medicare-for-All.

He's no longer the front-runner, and the other candidates might be just as happy to ignore him. But he needs to change the direction his campaign is heading, and to do so he'll need to be aggressive.

Expect him to go after Bloomberg for pretending to be much closer to Obama than he ever was — something that seems to genuinely irritate the former vice president — as well as hit Bloomberg on stop-and-frisk as he looks to hang onto his black support. Biden and potentially throw some haymakers at Bernie as well as he looks to resuscitate his campaign.

What will Klobuchar and Buttigieg do?

The pair of candidates have made it this far with strong performances in the first two, heavily white states — Buttigieg with a slight Iowa win and strong second place in New Hampshire, and Klobuchar with a debate-fueled rise to third place in New Hampshire. They also face tough roads ahead, largely because of their inability to broaden their appeal past white voters. They've been sniping back and forth for weeks.

The question is whether they continue to attack one another, focus on positive messages to try to elevate themselves, or take aim at the higher-polling Democrats onstage.

Cover: Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg speaks at a campaign event in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)