Sparring between Mike Bloomberg and the leading Democratic candidates erupted hours before Wednesday nights debate, previewing whats expected to be a tense night as the billionaire businessman meets his rivals onstage for the first time.
Both Bernie Sanders and Joe Bidens campaigns took aim at Bloomberg, the former raising questions about the 78-year-olds health and the latter pointing out reversals in Bloombergs stances on key issues.
The attacks underscore how seriously Democrats are taking the former New York mayors campaign, now that hes rocketed to double-digit support in national polls and qualified for the next two debates. Bloomberg, who formally registered as a Democrat in 2018, has faced relatively little national scrutiny in his surprisingly swift rise from nonpartisan megadonor to top-tier presidential contender.
On CNN Wednesday morning, Sanders' national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray tried to rebut questions surrounding the Vermont senators health by pointing to Bloomberg, who she said had also “suffered heart attacks in the past.” Sanders suffered a heart attack last fall and released letters from doctors attesting to his health. But Bloomberg has never suffered a heart attack; he released a doctors letter last year that said he did undergo coronary stent surgery in 2000.
Gray later walked back her statement, saying on Twitter that she “misspoke” about Bloombergs health.
Separately, the Biden campaign took on Bloomberg over ads the former mayor is running that feature shots of him working closely with former President Barack Obama. The Biden campaign posted a video to Twitter highlighting past comments Bloomberg made criticizing Obama on health care and climate change and accusing him of failing to address racism during his term. The video also includes a clip of Bloomberg declaring “Im a friend of Donald Trumps, hes a New York icon.”
Bloomberg had until recently largely escaped scrutiny from the media and attacks from his opponents by avoiding the early primary states and focusing instead on campaigning in the 14 states that vote in the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries. And his massive campaign — with over 2,000 staffers nationwide and over $400 million spent on ads already — has thus far given him enough of a boost to win high-profile endorsements and double-digit support in the polls.
A 'giant target' on Bloomberg's back
But Wednesday night's debate in Las Vegas, where Bloomberg will face off against five opponents who have made clear in recent days they're eager to take him on, will pose the greatest test yet of his unorthodox campaign strategy.
“He is going to have a giant target on his back from all sides,” said Democratic strategist Brian Brokaw. “Itll either all come together brilliantly or could fall apart very quickly.”
The debate comes at a pivotal point in the campaign. Some moderate Democrats increasingly are looking to Bloomberg as an alternative to progressive Sanders.
Bloomberg's been running a campaign focused on his work on progressive priorities, like his gun-control and climate-change advocacy. His campaign released a list of more than a dozen debate guests hours before the 9 p.m. EST event, featuring survivors of gun violence from several states. They include one man present at the 2017 shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 dead and hundreds more injured.
The stakes are high for every candidate onstage just days before Nevadas presidential caucuses, the third contest in the Democrats chaotic 2020 primary season. After more than a year of campaigning, there is little clarity in their urgent search for a nominee to run against President Donald Trump in November.
Longtime establishment favorite Biden, a former two-term vice president, is fighting to breathe new life into his flailing campaign, which enters the night at the bottom of a moderate muddle behind former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Sanders, a Vermont senator, has emerged as the progressive wings clear preference after two contests as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is struggling to regain energy around her campaign.
Some Democrats fear that the conditions are ripe for a bare-knuckles brawl on national television that could carve new scars into a divided Democratic Party that must ultimately come together this fall if it hopes to deny the Republican president a second term.
Bloombergs rivals have already indicated they will lean into his explosive comments on race and gender in addition to their charge that hes using a fortune earned from a career on Wall Street in an effort to buy the presidency. Bloombergs rise in national polls has been fueled almost exclusively by an unprecedented national advertising campaign, carefully controlled campaign events and a sprawling national organization that has likely already cost him more than half a billion dollars.
'Oligarchy, not democracy'?
Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the Sanders-allied Justice Democrats, called Wednesday Bloombergs first “public moment of accountability.”
“Its going to be a chance to finally bring scrutiny to Bloombergs record as a Republican plutocrat,” she said.
Bloomberg's team was working to lower expectations ahead of his performance, suggesting his debate skills are rusty after more than a decade since his last election.
Bloomberg hasnt been on a debate stage since 2009. His team notes he never faced more than one rival at a time over three elections for New York City mayor.
Despite the challenges, senior adviser Tim OBrien signaled that Bloomberg welcomed a fight against Sanders, whom the campaign perceives to be the races clear front-runner.
“I think youre going to see us go toe-to-toe with Bernie Sanders on important issues,” OBrien said in an interview, raising questions about Sanders personal wealth, record on criminal justice and gun control.
Sanders welcomed the fight as well.
The Vermont senator railed against Bloomberg and “a system that allows billionaires to buy elections,” while campaigning in Nevada on the eve of the debate.
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