For months he was above the fray. By the time the long-awaited heavyweight debate ended in Las Vegas Wednesday night, Michael Bloomberg was frayed.
His rivals pilloried the former New York mayor on his crude, sexually tinged remarks about women. They zoomed in on his stop-and-frisk policy. They accused him of trying to buy the Democratic presidential nomination. They portrayed him as an enemy of minorities. They charged that he was, as Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said, “hiding behind his TV ads.’’ And they said his riches disqualified him for the presidency in an age of a yawning wealth gap, arguing, as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts put it, “Democrats take a huge risk if we substitute an arrogant billionaire for another one.’’
Mr. Bloomberg parried some of their thrusts. But so many of them hit their mark in a riveting, tumultuous two-hour event that had all the marks of a Vegas prize fight that, if this were indeed a boxing match, a referee might have intervened and declared a technical knockout.
But with his unlimited campaign treasury and his hostility to President Donald J. Trump, Wednesday night’s debate in the desert likely wasn’t a TKO. It set Mr. Bloomberg back, to be sure, but almost certainly not out.
More broadly, the remaining Democratic candidates took a debate session long billed as a moment of transition in the political season and sought to return the nomination fight to its original state – a fairly conventional battle among themselves with Mr. Bloomberg out there somewhere on the periphery, a former Republican no more a threat than he was a presence in the early days of the campaign.
They were at least slightly successful. The candidate who attempted an insurgency funded by hundreds of millions of his own fortune – he may spend a billion before he’s done – found himself in the position he occupied while bypassing the caucuses in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire: alone. But not, as he hoped, alone at the top.
Just days before the Nevada caucuses, that position at the top of remains with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, himself an idiosyncratic candidate: the front-runner to win the nomination of a party he doesn’t belong to; a democratic socialist in a country that may seem less democratic in this era but not socialist either; and a 78-year old warhorse who has the fervent support of young people – the only voting group that hardly votes at all.
As the front-runner – ahead of Mr. Bloomberg by 12 percentage points in the respected Marist Institute poll released earlier Wednesday – Mr. Sanders also was a natural target of his remaining rivals.
They hit the familiar notes – he is too leftist, too willing to deprive Americans who like their health plans of their insurance policies – just as he hit his own familiar notes, this time adding three words to his customary attacks on billionaires. Wednesday night the acid-laced word “billionaires” was followed by the phrase “like Michael Bloomberg.”
This was Mr. Bloomberg’s first debate in 11 years, and he appeared on the Las Vegas stage in a setting completely different from the advertisements he has produced in television studios, where zingers can be refined, where misstatements can be restated, and where the candidate who pays for the ads sets the agenda and determines the topics. This was his first moment on the defensive in person.
He seemed less flustered than frustrated – until Ms. Warren demanded that he release women from non-disclosure agreements growing out of sexual harassment claims. That began a tag-team attack on Mr. Bloomberg that left him bloodied.
For his part, Mr. Bloomberg hit Mr. Trump hard with his description of the 45th president as an “arrogant con man,” a theme he reprised from his appearance at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. But he spent most of the evening on the defensive and had little opportunity to set forth his own vision in a fraught political environment that was the most contentious of the nine debates that have occurred in this election cycle.
The subtheme was the continuing debate over whether the Democrats should lean left or seek more moderate positions as they look to deny Mr. Trump a second term. Former mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., attacked Mr. Sanders for his leftist profile and his attitude that, as he described Mr. Sanders’ view, “If you’re not for him then you’re for the status quo.’’
Mr. Bloomberg knew that many of the populist ripostes were aimed in part at him. Finally he exploded, saying, ‘’I can’t think of a better way to get Donald Trump re-elected than to listen to this debate. It’s ridiculous.’’
The Democrats may not have settled on a nominee in Las Vegas nor won the allegiance of the swing voters they need to win the election nor even to attract new voters to their standard. But grant them this: They put on the most engrossing political drama of the season.
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