LAS VEGAS — An all-out brawl broke out on the Democratic debate stage Wednesday night as the presidential race entered a new phase with the debut of billionaire Michael Bloomberg and the rise of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as the front-runner.
The six candidates turned their sharp disagreements over health care, race and policing, and the very future of the Democratic Party into nothing less than a political cage match as they laid bare deep divisions in a party that is eager to defeat President Trump but is as torn as ever over how to do it.
With Bloomberg appearing on the debate stage for the first time, most of the other Democrats seized the opportunity to make him their foil. At times the former New York mayor seemed shell-shocked as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders raked his record on race over the coals, recited his most controversial and crude past comments, and even debated about whether billionaires like him should exist at all.
“I’d like to talk about who we are running against. A billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians," Warren said standing next to Bloomberg. “And no, I am not talking about Donald Trump. I am talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
It was the first of many attacks by Warren on Bloomberg in a sharp departure from the conciliatory posture she has taken in previous debates, as reached for a breakout performance at a moment when she desperately needs it.
Although the focus on Bloomberg shifted some fire away from Sanders, he nevertheless was forced to bat away questions about his health, age and democratic socialism.
“I don’t think there’s any chance of the senator beating President Trump,” Bloomberg said.
Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg summed up the stakes from the point of view of candidates trying to stop the race from becoming a two-man contest between candidates on outer -- and opposite -- edges of the Democratic party.
“We could wake up two weeks from today — the day after Super Tuesday — and the only candidates left standing will be Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, the two most polarizing figures on this stage,” Buttigieg said. “And most Americans don’t see where they fit if they’ve got to choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power.”
It represented a do-or-die moment for several candidates three days before Nevada — the first early-voting state with a diverse population — holds caucuses that could shift the momentum after voting in Iowa and New Hampshire offered muddled results.
Warren landed the most damaging blow on Bloomberg over the issue of confidentiality agreements signed by women who worked in his corporate empire.
“He has gotten some number of women, dozens maybe, to sign nondisclosure agreements for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace,” Warren said, before lobbing a simple question his way. “So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements, so we can hear their side?”
“We have very few nondisclosure agreements,” Bloomberg stammered.
Warren asked lightly: “How many is that?”
"None of them accuse me of anything other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” Bloomberg said, looking more uncomfortable by the second, before flatly refusing to release his former employees. “They signed those agreements, and we’ll live with it.”
Warren turned back to the audience in front of her, and cast a last dismissal at a rival who has spent $400 million of his own money to launch himself into the top tier of the race to take on President Trump, one that left the crowd booing him on live television.
“This is not just a question of the mayor’s character. This is also a question about electability,” Warren said. “We are not gonna beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many nondisclosure agreements and the drip drip drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against. That’s not what we do as Democrats.”
It was a remarkable moment in a chaotic debate that was never expected to be an easy night for Bloomberg, whose heavy spending and past life as a Republican have made him a prime target for his Democratic rivals who have been running for president for much of the past year.
At times, Bloomberg tried to make the case that he was the best candidate to beat Trump and do the job of president.
“I’m a New Yorker. I know how to take on an arrogant con man like Donald Trump that comes from New York,” Bloomberg said.
Since he skipped the early primary states, where the other candidates have been tussling for votes, he has loomed on the horizon of the primary and had until recently avoided much of the scrutiny that his rivals has faced from each other and the media. But Wednesday night’s debate seemed to bring him down to earth, depriving him of the lavish trappings of his campaign and his rapidly expanding staff to stand alone on stage with several rivals eager to dig in.
Warren did not limit her criticism to Bloomberg, although her newfound affinity for calling out her rivals could undercut her recent effort to remake herself as a “unity candidate.” She aimed jabs at Sanders aggressive online supporters and the health care plans championed by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg, calling them a “Post-it” and a “Powerpoint” respectively.
And while Warren has generally avoided clashes with Sanders, who she has viewed as a progressive ally, she used some of her time on Wednesday night to suggest his political vision is vague and only narrowly appealing.
“Democrats want to beat Donald Trump, but they are worried. They are worried about gambling on a narrow vision that doesn’t address the fears of millions of Americans across this country who see real problems and want real change,” she said. “They are worried about gambling on a revolution that won’t bring along a majority of this country.”
At times, the whole stage was consumed by combat. Everyone sought to paint Sanders as too risky a nominee to lead Democrats to victory against Trump. Biden and others hit Bloomberg over his previous support for stop-and-frisk policies that discriminated against Black and brown residents of New York City. And Klobuchar and Buttigieg fought over Klobuchar’s recent failure to remember the name of the president of Mexico, before Warren stepped in to defend her.
At times, Sanders and Bloomberg directly battled it out over Sanders’ democratic socialism and Bloomberg’s extreme wealth, which Sanders used as a case study in why the American economy is broken. He chided Bloomberg for being richer than 125 million Americans combined. “That’s wrong, that’s immoral,” he said, while gesturing to the former mayor at the end of the stage.
“Mayor Bloomberg should you exist?” moderator Chuck Todd asked him, referencing Sanders’ belief that no one should be allowed to amass as much wealth as he has. “Should you have earned that much money?”
“Yes, I worked very hard for it and I’m giving it away,” Bloomberg responded.
Later, Bloomberg attacked Sanders as a “millionaire with three houses,” setting off a back and forth between the two septuaganarians. “Where is your home? Which tax haven is your home?” Sanders shot back.
“New York City, thank you very much,” Bloomberg responded. “And I pay all my taxes, and I’m happy to do it because I get something for it.”
He said Sanders’ rhetoric would help Trump win. “We’re not going to throw out capitalism,” Bloomberg said, adding that “communism” doesn’t work. Sanders called that a “cheap shot,” explaining that he doesn’t subscribe to communism.
Buttigieg was also the target of several attacks. Klobuchar said he had “memorized a bunch of talking points,” while Sanders took a shot at his willingness to attend private fundraisers, which he and Warren have sworn off.
“That’s all that we are saying, Pete, maybe it’s time for the working class of this country to have a little bit of power in Washington rather than your billionaire campaign contributors,” Sanders said.
“My campaign is fueled by hundreds of thousands of contributors,” interjected Buttigieg, who was perhaps the only candidate onstage to limit his attacks on Bloomberg
Biden, who has fallen in national polls as Bloomberg rose, continued to make the argument that he is best positioned to defeat Trump, pointing to head-to-head polling that shows him performing the best in the field. He also pointed out that Sanders did not vote for an immigration reform bill in 2007, an apparent attempt to deflate the senator’s support with Latinos in Nevada.