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Warren soars, Bloomberg flops in knives-out debate

Warren went after Bloomberg with such ferocity and precision that the former mayor looked as if he’d just been stopped, thrown up against a wall, and frisked outside his tony New York townhouse.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Mike Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren speak during a break in the Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas Wednesday.MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

At last, a place where Michael Bloomberg’s billions couldn’t help him — the presidential debate stage.

If Bloomberg were a Broadway show in the city where he served as mayor for 12 years, his opening night would be declared a flop. He spent more than $400 million of his own money to buy his way into the Democratic debate in Las Vegas Wednesday night, even though he’s skipping the Nevada caucus on Saturday.

Yet Bloomberg was woefully unprepared to defend or explain his record, which includes the ineffective and racist stop-and-frisk policy that terrorized New York’s communities of color, and decades of complaints of a sexist and hostile work environment for women at his company. With his money unable to bail him out, Bloomberg offered little more than the haughty, eye-rolling outrage of an entitled man unaccustomed to answering to anybody about anything.


Boosted by his relentless barrage of advertising, Bloomberg came into the debate like a media-anointed front-runner, even though he is not. That attention has also come at the expense of other contenders who’ve seen their candidacies all but declared dead, even though they are not.

Which brings us to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s mic-drop of a performance.

Perhaps tired of the premature obituaries being written for her campaign, Warren went after Bloomberg with such ferocity and precision that the former mayor looked as if he’d just been stopped, thrown up against a wall, and frisked outside his tony New York townhouse.

“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against — a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians,’" Warren said. "And, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump; I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg. 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 redlining and stop-and-frisk.


“Look, I’ll support whoever the Democratic nominee is,” she added. “But understand this: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”

It was knives out night for Warren, and Bloomberg never recovered. She took hold of the debate, and never let go.

The race for the Democratic nomination remains wide open. Upcoming contests in Nevada and South Carolina, both with populations far more racially diverse than Iowa or New Hampshire, are likely to shake up the current standings. That’s why the candidates didn’t hold back, and the stripes they’ve garnered since the debates began last summer were on full display. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg assailed Senator Amy Klobuchar’s voting record, as she went after his inexperience. Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden tried to out yell each other.

If there’s any justice, Warren will reap the rewards of her dazzling debate. One could say she’s back in this thing but, of course, she’s never been out. Bloomberg may hang onto his recent surge, if it isn’t a mirage. Remember, at this time last year, polls and pundits had Biden polishing his nomination acceptance speech months before he officially declared his candidacy. With his bottomless wallet, Bloomberg isn’t going anywhere. Yet with Super Tuesday less than two weeks away, his not-ready-for-prime-time debut on the national stage may cost the billionaire more than even he can afford.

Following a question about billionaires and income inequality, NBC’s Chuck Todd, one of the debate moderators, asked, “Mayor Bloomberg, should you exist?”


With Bloomberg’s lousy effort, there is only one correct answer: not in the White House.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.