LAS VEGAS — He has loomed on the horizon of the Democratic primary like a comet propelled by vast personal wealth, building an enormous campaign staff and holding lavish events as his rivals tussled in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But at Wednesday night’s debate here, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire and former New York City mayor who only entered the race in November, will slam directly into the middle of the fray.
A poll released Tuesday showed Bloomberg with 19 percent support of voters nationally, second to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and more than enough to vault him onto the debate stage under revised qualifying rules set by the Democratic National Committee. It sets up a potential battle royale, with five candidates who have been campaigning for much longer than Bloomberg champing at the bit to face him and slow his growing momentum.
“It makes it real,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a veteran Democratic strategist. “It has felt like a scrimmage till now, and Bloomberg being onstage, you’re like, ‘OK, now this is a truly engaged primary.’ ”
Bloomberg is not on the ballot in Nevada — he skipped the early primary states in favor of spending heavily in those that vote on Super Tuesday on March 3 — but his presence on the debate stage will make him a focal point in a showdown that already had the potential to be a turning point in a fluid race.
On stage will be Sanders, who is eager to cement his front-runner status after strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former vice president Joe Biden, who are each looking for Nevada to give their candidacies a boost after lagging behind other candidates in the first two states.
Meanwhile, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar are hoping strong debate performances can propel them to better-than-expected showings in the caucuses, which could quiet critics who say they do not have enough support from minority voters to reprise their successes in less-diverse Iowa and New Hampshire.
As things stand now, every candidate views Bloomberg, who has already spent $400 million of his own money to rocket himself into the race’s top tier, as either a foil or a threat, and several telegraphed their intentions to attack him on the debate stage Wednesday.
“It’s a shame Mike Bloomberg can buy his way into the debate,” Warren tweeted on Tuesday. “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.”
On Tuesday, strategists for Bloomberg told reporters they believe the race will be a two-man contest between him and Sanders. That raised the likelihood that the debate will involve a clash between Bloomberg, the former Republican, and the democratic socialist Sanders.
“Mike is quite clearly in a strong second place in this primary and rising rapidly above the rest of the field, which is either stagnant or declining quickly,’’ said Dan Kanninen, Bloomberg’s states director, according to Politico. “None of the other Democrats, beside Mike or Bernie, is in a position to amass delegates in a serious way on Super Tuesday.”
That followed days of escalating tensions between the two. On Saturday, speaking to a gathering of the Clark County Democrats, Sanders assailed Bloomberg as out-of-step with the Democratic Party, focusing on his support for stop-and-frisk policing and a leaked video in which he drew a connection between the 2008 financial crisis and the end of the discriminatory lending practice known as redlining.
“We will not create the energy and excitement we need to defeat Donald Trump if that candidate pursued and enacted racist policies like stop-and-frisk, which caused communities of color in his city to live in fear,” Sanders said, and added “all his money” would not trigger the voter turnout needed to defeat Trump.
On Monday, Bloomberg’s campaign released a video that highlighted the aggressive online tactics of some of Sanders’ supporters and compared them to those used by supporters of Trump. Sanders responded, calling both Bloomberg and Trump products of a “corrupt political system.”
“Both Sanders and Bloomberg would prefer to define their candidacy in relation to the other and have everyone else blacked out,” said Brian Fallon, a former aide to Hillary Clinton. “That’s why Bloomberg has been going out of his way to pick a fight with Bernie on social media in recent days.”
But the two will not be the only ones tangling on the debate stage.
Warren is looking for a strong performance to propel her back into the national narrative after she finished fourth in New Hampshire following a debate there in which she spoke less than four other candidates.
And her allies believe she has a perfect foil in Bloomberg. She may use her time on the stage Wednesday to continue a line of attack she opened in Virginia last week, when she highlighted his comments about redlining — an issue she would address in a policy change she has proposed — and said he should not be the Democratic nominee.
“Bloomberg is the walking personification of her core message, that billionaires are trying to buy and corrupt our democracy,” said Adam Green, the cofounder of the Warren-aligned Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Her ability to weave together economic populism and racial justice while hitting Bloomberg will likely be a significant difference compared to other candidates.”
Bloomberg is not the only candidate Warren has shown a willingness to knock in recent days; in an interview with NBC on Monday night, she said that Sanders’ aggressive supporters give him “a lot of questions to answer.”
It is rare for Warren to attack her rivals on the debate stage, but if she does so on Wednesday, it could be a reflection of a possible path to the nomination for her as a palatable alternative to both Sanders and Bloomberg.
“She has two people to push off against on stage,” Palmieri said, “she’s got Bloomberg, and then she has Sanders because she’s been critical of his supporters.”
Biden, who is eyeing Nevada as a state that can help revive his flagging candidacy, has also hit Bloomberg in recent days and showed little interest in fading onstage amid the fireworks.
“Mike Bloomberg has not yet endured a single debate. He has not been on the ballot in early states or won a single delegate to the convention,” said Andrew Bates, an aide to Biden, in a statement Tuesday. “It is a jarring but unsurprising level of arrogance for his team to suggest in any way that his position in this campaign is solid or assured.”
Bloomberg’s rivals run the risk of making him look like a front-runner if they focus wholly on him, and attacks on his wealth could backfire if they highlight a quality — his money — that makes some voters believe he would be a strong opponent to Trump.
“I think the danger for them is that they’ll be tempted to pile on in terms of criticism for Bloomberg without making a positive case for themselves,” said Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University.