From the opening bell, Democrats unleashed an aggressive verbal assault on New York billionaire Mike Bloomberg and raised new questions about Bernie Sanders’ take-no-prisoners politics in a contentious debate Wednesday night on the Las Vegas Strip.
The former New York City mayor was forced to defend his divisive record on race, gender and Wall Street in his debate-stage debut, while Sanders, appearing in his ninth of the 2020 primary season, tried to beat back pointed questions about his health and his ability to defeat President Donald Trump this fall.
It was a raucous affair just three days before Nevada voters decide the third contest of the Democratic Party’s turbulent 2020 primary.
Sanders lashed out at Bloomberg’s policing policies as New York City mayor that he said targeted “African-American and Latinos in an outrageous way.”
In a fight for her political life, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was a leading aggressor early against Bloomberg. She called him “a billionaire who calls people ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.'”
WATCH | Warren likens Bloomberg to Trump:
Sanders lashed out at Bloomberg’s policing policies as mayor that he said targeted “African-American and Latinos in an outrageous way,” and former vice-president Joe Biden charged that his “stop-and-frisk” policy ended up “throwing five million black men up against the wall.”
Bloomberg stumbled at the outset when pressed on his record in business and allegations of sexual harassment at his company. Several women alleged they were discriminated against and Bloomberg himself created a culture of sexual harassment.
Both Warren and Biden called on him to release women involved in the lawsuits from non-disclosure agreements.
“We have a very few non-disclosure agreements — none of them accuse me of doing anything other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” Bloomberg said.
“They are being muzzled by you and you could release them from that immediately,” Warren charged.
WATCH | Warren goes after Bloomberg on nondisclosure agreements:
Bloomberg defended himself on all counts and took a shot at Sanders’ electability: “I don’t think there’s any chance of the senator beating Donald Trump.”
Bloomberg also said the surest way to get Trump re-elected was to have him listen to some of the Democrats talking about the economy.
WATCH | Bloomberg says Trump could get re-elected:
But the intense criticism Bloomberg faced threatened to undermine his surprisingly swift rise from nonpartisan megadonor to top-tier contender.
Fears about Sanders
The debate also marked a major test for Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who is emerging as the front-runner in the Democrats’ nomination fight, whether his party’s establishment likes it or not. A growing group of donors, elected officials and political operatives fear that Sanders’ uncompromising progressive politics could be a disaster in the general election against Trump, yet they’ve struggled to coalesce behind a single moderate alternative.
Sanders might have bolstered those fears when he emerged as the only Democratic candidate on the stage who said the candidate with the most delegates should win the party’s presidential nomination — even if he or she doesn’t have a majority.
His rivals said the party should follow its rules at the Democratic convention rather than handing the nomination to someone without 50 per cent of delegates.
That sets up a clash should the primary season end without a clear winner, giving way to a contested convention. Delegates are picked up through state parties and caucuses, and party rules state a candidate needs a majority to become the nominee.
If no candidate hits that threshold initially, superdelegates would be allowed to vote on a second ballot. They include members of Congress and other party leaders. Sanders’ campaign fought in 2016 to eliminate superdelegate votes in the first stage after the majority of them sided with Hillary Clinton.
Former Midwestern mayor Pete Buttigieg attacked both Bloomberg and Sanders, warning that one threatened to “burn down” the Democratic Party and the other was trying to buy it.
He called them “the two most polarizing figures on this stage.”
Bloomberg and Sanders may have been prime targets at the outset, but the stakes were no less dire for the other four candidates on stage.
Buttigieg went after Sen. Amy Klobuchar, skewering her for failing to name the Mexican president in an interview last week.
Buttigieg said despite her role on committees overseeing border security and trade, the Minnesota senator was “not able to speak to literally the first thing, the politics,” of the neighbouring country by naming Mexico’s leader, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Klobuchar retorted: “Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Are you mocking me, Pete?”
WATCH | That heated exchange between Buttigieg and Klobuchar:
Warren defended Klobuchar and called Buttigieg’s argument “unfair,” adding that “missing a name all by itself does not indicate that you do not understand what is going on.”
Longtime establishment favourite Biden, Barack Obama’s two-term vice-president, desperately needed to breathe new life into his flailing campaign, which entered the night at the bottom of a moderate muddle behind Buttigieg and Klobuchar. And after a bad finish last week in New Hampshire, Warren was fighting just to stay in the conversation.
As Democrats were clustered inside the casino hosting the debate, outside on the Las Vegas Strip, Republicans hired a mobile electronic billboard truck to drive slowly in front of tourists, flashing a message promoting Trump’s re-election.
Bloomberg is avoiding the earliest primary states, focusing instead on campaigning in the 14 states that vote in the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries. And his massive campaign — with more than 2,000 staffers nationwide and more than $400 million US spent on ads already — has given him enough of a boost to win high-profile endorsements and double-digit support in the polls.