Michael Bloomberg, whose rise in the polls has rattled the Democratic presidential field, will face rivals eager to take him on in person for the first time on a debate stage, injecting a new, untested candidate into what had become almost routine campaign events.
The former New York mayor has enjoyed a surge in polling numbers, coming in second, with 19% to Bernie Sanders’ 31%, in an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Tuesday.
That poll was the final break to qualify him to join his Democratic rivals Wednesday night in Las Vegas for their ninth debate. It will be the first time for many voters to see Bloomberg live instead of in a television ad.
But with those poll numbers comes far more scrutiny, and he has come under criticism for a week about past statements that don’t track with traditional Democratic positions on policing, women, race and health-care for the elderly. He has also taken hits for self-funding his campaign.
(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
The rest of the field is also watching for their own moments in the hot seat. Sanders, the current front-runner will face questions about whether his progressive policies are too extreme for a general-election campaign.
And former Vice President Joe Biden has promised a first- or second-place finish in Nevada and wants to show his campaign is still viable after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Pete Buttigieg has the most delegates, but concerns about his qualifications has kept other moderates like Amy Klobuchar in the mix
Bloomberg’s rivals are eager for the opportunity to confront him before a national television audience. He has campaigned in states where other candidates, and national media, are scarce and has faced little questioning while his $400 million in advertising saturates the airwaves and the internet.
“I cannot beat Michael Bloomberg on the airwaves, big surprise, even though we have gotten in millions and millions of dollars,” Klobuchar told reporters in Las Vegas. “But I can beat him on the debate stage.”
Biden told MSNBC that Bloomberg “can buy every ad he wants but he can’t, in fact, wipe away his record from dealing with stop and frisk to his foreign policy assertions and the like.”
Others are equally looking forward to having a new target on the stage. Sanders, who has made the former New York mayor, one of the primary subjects of his stump speech, has argued Bloomberg is using his billions to buy the nomination. Pete Buttigieg said Bloomberg should answer for allegations of sexist and racist remarks at his business. And Elizabeth Warren has struck out at Bloomberg on his views on banking and discrimination.
Warrentweeted her anticipation of debating Bloomberg on Tuesday.
“It’s a shame Mike Bloomberg can buy his way into the debate. But at least now primary voters curious about how each candidate will take on Donald Trump can get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire,” she said.
While the other candidates are battling in Nevada for the state’s caucuses on Saturday and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29, Bloomberg doesn’t appear on a ballot until 14 states and territories vote on Super Tuesday, including the big delegate prizes of California and Texas.
The debate is both propitious and treacherous for Bloomberg. He has an opportunity to showcase his centrist ideas and introduce himself to voters with more than a television ad.
He will also take heat for simply being on the stage. The Democratic National Committee made a long-planned rule change just before the Iowa caucuses to eliminate the fund-raising qualification for debate participation, which blocked Bloomberg from participating in the debates that occurred since he joined the race in late November. Without that requirement, he qualified by reaching at least 10% in four national polls.
Sanders has criticized the rule change, although Warren, Klobuchar and Biden have been vocal about wanting a chance to debate him. For his part, Bloomberg has said that it’s only fair he be allowed to participate if polls show the public wants it.
“I think I’d come out a big winner,” he said in a Feb. 3 interview. “The more I can show the difference between me and other candidates, the better off I am.”
Bloomberg has begun responding to the criticism with a digital video that shows a series of harassing commentary by Sanders’ ardent fans known as Bernie Bros, and suggesting America is weary of that kind of discourse.
The other billionaire in the race, former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, did not qualify under the new rules for the first time.
In anticipation of qualifying, Bloomberg has been preparing for the debate with mock sessions. Senior adviser Howard Wolfson is playing Sanders in the sessions and other staffers portraying other candidates, the campaign said.
There are other fireworks to watch for as well. Klobuchar rose in the polls, and finished a surprise third in New Hampshire, after some sharp criticism of Buttigieg’s lack of experience. She also went after Sanders and Warren for their support of Medicare for All, which she calls unrealistic.
Sanders has criticized Biden over his support for the Iraq war. And Warren and Sanders have sparred over the Trump administration’s rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the best ways to enact progressive legislation.
Beneath all of the sparring is a broader strategic question that Democrats must address: Whether the best way to beat President Donald Trump in November is by reassuring moderates with kitchen-table proposals — as Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Biden, Klobuchar have argued — or by bolstering turnout with aggressive ideas that create a clear contrast — as Warren and Sanders contend.
The debate at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas is sponsored by NBC and the Nevada Independent and begins at 9 p.m. Eastern time.
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