Not even two seconds into the ninth Democratic debate in Las Vegas, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his debut appearance on stage, was under fire from every conceivable direction.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took the first shot, immediately launching into an attack on the parts of Bloomberg’s record that has come under scrutiny as he has risen steadily in the polls.
“In order to beat Donald Trump, we’re going to need the largest voter turnout in the history of the United States. Mr. Bloomberg had policies in New York City of stop and frisk, which went after African-American and Latino people in an outrageous way,” Sanders started out. “That is not a way you’re going to grow voter turnout.”
Then Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) came in for the kill.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against,” Warren began. “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.”
Before Bloomberg could get in a counterpoint, Warren continued: “Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women. And of supporting racist policies like red lining and stop and frisk,” she said.
Then former Vice President Joe Biden took a swing, referencing certain poll numbers that show him as best suited to beat President Donald Trump in the general election.
“In terms of who can beat Donald Trump, it says Joe Biden is best equipped to beat Donald Trump,” Biden said. “It says I can beat him in those tossup states too, the states we have to win.” Then, he pivoted to the same issue as Sanders. “The fact of the matter is, he has not managed his city very, very well when he was there. He didn't get a lot done. He has stop and frisk, throwing close to 5 million young black men up against a wall,” Biden said.
Behold: the Bloomberg effect.
It began hours before the debate officially commenced in Las Vegas, as rival teams were already attacking Bloomberg, the larger-than-life presence who has, for his relatively short duration as a declared candidate, morphed from a mere annoyance to a major player in the field.
Having flooded airwaves and thrown hundreds of millions of dollars of his personal wealth into his presidential bid, some of 2020’s leading contenders opted to give him a dose of the frontrunner treatment they have each endured for the grueling year-long campaign cycle.
Bloomberg, who has recently surged to the number two spot, is a particular sore spot for Biden. Remaining the national frontrunner since April, the billionaire’s presence has come largely at Biden’s expense, at times surpassing him in key states and with friendly constituencies. And his team is on high alert.
Aides to the former vice president have for days had sought to create distance between Bloomberg and former President Barack Obama, claiming the former mayor was repeatedly distorting their relationship. Biden’s campaign, who has leaned heavily into his close relationship with the 44th president, sent out a tweet on Wednesday morning before the debate suggesting that the bond was nothing more than a charade built for political expediency. “Welcome to the debates, Mike. We have a lot to catch up on about Barack Obama’s record,” Biden tweeted, linking to a mock ad promoting Bloomberg’s comments criticizing the former president on multiple occasions.
Having shown an aptitude for clapping back online, Bloomberg’s campaign responded in kind. Releasing their own video titled, “This is what Joe Biden really thinks of Mike Bloomberg,” the billionaire’s associates compiled clips of Biden publicly praising his work. “I don’t know anybody I’ve worked with in my career and I’ve been hanging around a long time who does more to create the future than you, Mike,” Biden said. Linking to the video, Bloomberg’s campaign account followed up with a tweet that said, “We are honored to have Joe’s support.”
It was meant to give the appearance of an endorsement. And his aides were enraged.
Biden, for his part, responded wryly: “I don’t endorse Republicans,” he tweeted, referring to the former New York City mayor’s past political party.
Sanders also had his own spat with Bloomberg on Wednesday.When his national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray wrongly said Bloomberg of having multiple heart attacks during a cable news appearance, Bloomberg’s campaign quickly shot back to correct the record. She later apologized for the comments in a post on Twitter.
The back and forth was a mere preview of the collective resentment—and, in some cases, sheer anger—built up among campaigns towards the billionaire Democrat, who many contend is attempting to buy his way into the White House. Having already slogged through eight prior nights with a similar set of rivals, Bloomberg is now facing the firing squad for the first time. While most of his opponents had been vocal about their desires to debate him during the few months he has been in the race, they had not had the chance to address the man whose presence has been virtually everywhere, including in states he’s not even competing.
Nevada, like Iowa and New Hampshire before it, is part of the quartet of early contests he is skipping out on. While several contenders are hoping for strong performances on Saturday’s caucuses to revitalize their plummeting bids—or to hang on to their newly rising status—Bloomberg’s decision to forgo the first early voting states has irked basically everyone. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed on the ground. In conversations with nearly a dozen voters in New Hampshire, where nearly 5,000 people wrote in Bloomberg’s name, others felt his drive-by form of electioneering short changes the Democratic process.
Among the candidates, arguably no one is more irritated than Sanders. The two septuagenarian politicians have risen swiftly to occupy the top spots in state and national polls, and the Vermont senator has made Bloomberg an active target since launching his bid in late November. During a CNN town hall on Tuesday night, Sanders said Bloomberg has “every right” to run for president, but heavily criticized the money he’s dropped to elevate his 2020 bid. “I don't think he has the right to buy this election,” Sanders said.