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Left to right: former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former vice-president Joe Biden, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar debate at the Paris Theater, in Las Vegas, on Feb. 19, 2020.MIKE BLAKE/Reuters

The Democratic presidential campaign entered a divisive new phase Wednesday as candidates aimed their attacks at one another, assailing Michael Bloomberg on his wealth and controversial record as New York mayor and Bernie Sanders on his socialist policies just days before voters are set to caucus in Nevada.

In his debut on the presidential debate stage, Mr. Bloomberg, the billionaire founder of financial-data and media firm Bloomberg LP and three-term New York mayor, came under intense fire for his Wall Street pedigree and controversial statements on visible minorities and women.

He struggled to defend his past support for a controversial law enforcement tactic whose use by New York’s police department was ruled unconstitutional in 2013. And he elicited boos from the audience at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino for downplaying sexual harassment and gender discrimination lawsuits by female employees of his company. “None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he said.

The debate was a rocky start for Mr. Bloomberg, 78, who has risen in popularity on the strength of a US$400-million self-funded advertising campaign aimed at the 14 states who vote in Super Tuesday, March 3.

While Mr. Bloomberg entered the Democratic race too late to qualify for early-voting states like Nevada and South Carolina, the debate was nonetheless a crucial moment for him. His surge to third place in national polls in recent weeks has landed him at the centre of the fractious and unsettled Democratic race. He has been the main beneficiary among older and more moderate voters alarmed by the struggles of former vice-president Joe Biden, who is coming off fourth-place showings in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Democratic delegate tracker: Who’s ahead, who’s behind in the U.S. presidential nomination race

Wednesday’s debate came just days ahead of Nevada caucuses on Saturday, which are expected to be a pivotal moment in the Democratic presidential race. Each of the six candidates who took the stage entered the debate hoping it would prove to be a turning point in their campaign.

Mr. Sanders, who has surged into a double-digit lead in national polls, is banking on a win in Nevada to cement his front-runner status.

Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, both coming off strong performances in New Hampshire, are looking to retain their momentum in urban and racially diverse Nevada.

Mr. Biden is pinning his hopes on Nevada and South Carolina to salvage his flagging campaign. Meanwhile, Mr. Bloomberg needed his first debate to cement himself as a fully-fledged presidential candidate and counter a torrent of criticism from his opponents that he is a billionaire trying to buy the election.

That pressure played itself out in what was the most intense and personal of the Democratic debates so far. President Donald Trump, who has been the primary focus of attacks in prior debates, took a back seat, with candidates instead intent on attacking each other.

Mr. Bloomberg faced a volley of fire from his rivals, with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren accusing him of being “a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’” Comparing Mr. Bloomberg to Mr. Trump, she warned: “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”

Ms. Warren and Mr. Biden both pressed the former New York Mayor to release female former employees of Bloomberg LP from nondisclosure agreements signed as part of settlements for sexual harassment and gender discrimination lawsuits.

Largely dodging the request, Mr. Bloomberg responded: “They signed the agreements and that's what we're going to live with.”

He also repeated an apology for supporting stop-and-frisk, a program that saw officers indiscriminately search thousands of predominantly African-American and Latino residents in search of weapons, the majority of whom were unarmed. “I've apologized, I've asked for forgiveness,” he said. “But the bottom line is that we stopped too many people.”

Mr. Sanders, who is running a progressive campaign based largely on attacking wealth inequality, focused his sharpest rebukes on Mr. Bloomberg, the ninth richest person in the United States with an estimated net worth of more than $US60-billion.

“Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans,” Mr. Sanders said. “That’s wrong, that’s immoral, that should not be the case when we’ve got half a million people sleeping out on the streets.”

Mr. Bloomberg responded by accusing Mr. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, of trying to “throw out capitalism.”

“We tried that, other countries tried that – it was called communism and it just didn’t work,” he said, before suggesting that Mr. Sanders was a hypocrite who amassed personal wealth even as he campaigned on attacking the rich. “The most well-known socialist in the country is a millionaire with three houses."

As the front-runner in the race heading into the Nevada caucuses, Mr. Sanders faced plenty of his own criticism during the debate. He was forced to denounce supporters of his campaign who have taken to social media to harass members of Nevada’s Culinary Union, which has publicly opposed Mr. Sanders’ Medicare-for-All plan.

The rivalry between Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Buttigieg, both vying for the moderate lane of the Democratic Party, also appeared to heat up during the debate. The 38-year-old former South Bend mayor questioned the three-term Senator on why she had forgotten the name of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador during a television interview earlier this month.

“You’re staking your candidacy on your Washington experience,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “You’re literally in part of the committee that’s overseeing these things and were not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country to our south.”

“Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?” Ms. Klobuchar replied, before pointing to Mr. Buttigieg’s unsuccessful 2010 run for Indiana state treasurer.

The spat turned nasty enough that Ms. Warren jumped in to defend Ms. Klobuchar. “Missing a name all by itself does not indicate that you do not understand what's going on,” she said.

Amid the raucous debate, Mr. Biden struggled for airtime as he tried to remind voters that he had been the candidate that Mr. Trump feared most heading into a general election. “The fact is that we are in a situation where you have the President making clear that he doesn’t want any part of me being his opponent,” he said. “He’s spending $125,000 this week to keep me from being the opponent. I wonder why?”

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