LAS VEGAS — Phew. That was a debate.
Here are six takeaways from the most gloves-off, knives-out Democratic debate so far in the 2020 presidential race.
Things got ugly in Vegas, and fast
After eight debates that had sparks of conflict but were relatively cordial, Wednesday night brought two hours of nonstop political battle.
Every candidate got attacked. Sen. Elizabeth Warren sometimes attacked almost everyone in a single breath. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg found himself facing incoming fire within the debate’s first seconds and looked very much like the out-of-practice politician he was before his tardy entry to the presidential campaign in November.
The night revealed the desperation of everyone onstage who wasn’t Sen. Bernie Sanders or Bloomberg, whose hundreds of millions of dollars in TV advertising threaten to drown most of his rivals come Super Tuesday.
It portends a new, nastier phase of the campaign as the candidates hit the campaign trail before 16 states and territories hold Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses March 3. And it raises the question of how much uglier the candidates might be when they gather again for the next debate Tuesday night in Charleston, South Carolina.
Bloomberg came close to going bust
It was Bloomberg’s debut on the presidential debate stage. He did not make a good first impression.
After saturating the airwaves with unprecedented levels of advertising for almost three months, Bloomberg was on the defensive from the opening gun. Sanders hit him for his support of stop-and-frisk police tactics. Warren eviscerated him as a sexist (“a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians’”) who had “muzzled” women with nondisclosure agreements. Former Vice President Joe Biden said the former mayor didn’t manage New York City very well.
It didn’t get better from there.
Bloomberg’s shakiest stretch came when Warren pressed him over his nondisclosure agreements with women who worked for his company. When she said “I hope you heard what his defense was: I’ve been nice to some women,” Bloomberg visibly rolled his eyes in annoyance.
Bloomberg steadfastly refused to budge, dismissing the private complaints with a one-liner that did not land.
“Maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he said.
Later, he awkwardly described the agreements — with unknown monetary payments — as being “made consensually.”
He sounded uncomfortable both defending his stop-and-frisk record and his very recent change of heart. He accused Sanders — who is leading in the polls — of “communism,” which the Vermont senator slapped away as a “cheap shot.” As they exited the stage, Biden said on MSNBC that he turned to Bloomberg and said, “Welcome to the party, man.”
Warren had a very good night
After the New Hampshire debate early this month, Warren said she had her hand up a lot but didn’t get called on much. This time, she not only spoke more than any of her rivals, she often was setting the terms of the debate.
It was the kind of aggressive performance that allies and even some of her campaign advisers had been hoping for, even if it marked a sharp shift from her recent strategy of appearing as an above-the-fray candidate who could unite Democrats.
She had one-liners. And twice she plowed through the weaknesses of so many of her opponents in a single answer that it left moderators struggling to even give everyone a chance to respond. Perhaps most notably, she forcefully addressed health care and her “Medicare for All” plan, which has been a liability for months.
She said that former Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s health care plan was “not a plan, it’s a PowerPoint” and that Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s was more “like a Post-it note.” She said even advisers to Sanders admitted his package “probably won’t happen anyway.”
How the performance will play out among voters in the coming days and weeks remains to be seen. Warren had stagnated in recent weeks. But Wednesday night she looked like a fighter determined to go the distance, and her campaign wasted no time boasting of a huge financial haul — $1 million raised during the debate itself — as a potential sign of a revival.
Sanders, the polling leader, is unscathed once again
Sanders won the most votes in the first two states. He is leading in Nevada polls. He is leading in national polls. He has been raising more than all his rivals. But he still was not the central focus of his rivals at the debate.
The arrival of Bloomberg and his large fortune has threatened the path forward for all the other anti-Sanders candidates and served as something of a distraction. And so they focused more on the former mayor than on the surging senator who is building momentum by the day and who could add even more if he carries the caucuses here Saturday.
Some rivals hit him: Warren on his health plan not being realistic; Buttigieg on the toxicity of some of the Sanders supporters online; Bloomberg on his support of socialism and that Sanders would lose to President Donald Trump.
But there was no singular moment that would seem to upend his current positive trajectory, both in Nevada and nationally. And even if Sanders did not deliver his most forceful performance, that might have been enough.
Klobuchar and Buttigieg may take each other down
Forgive us for wondering Wednesday night if Klobuchar and Buttigieg wanted to physically harm each other onstage at times.
While Warren and Sanders despise the idea of a self-funding billionaire nominee like Bloomberg, no two presidential candidates loathe each other with the fire of Klobuchar and Buttigieg.
The dynamic was on full display at the debate: The two dismissed each other’s experience as irrelevant to governing, with Klobuchar saying Buttigieg hasn’t been “in the arena.” Buttigieg all but called Klobuchar incompetent for forgetting the name of the president of Mexico.
When Buttigieg leveled an attack on Klobuchar’s Senate voting record as insufficiently progressive, she glared at him and shot back a line that encapsulates how she — and others in the field — feel about the 38-year-old former mayor: “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.”
The Buttigieg-Klobuchar conflict is consequential. With Bloomberg near the top of polling in key Super Tuesday states, the other moderates cannot hope to both top the 15% threshold to win enough delegates to keep their campaigns viable. Buttigieg and Klobuchar appear to know a lesson from the Harry Potter children’s book series: One must die for the other to survive.
Biden seemed like an afterthought for his rivals
It was not so long ago that Biden was widely assumed to be the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Wednesday’s debate showed that no one else in the race thinks that’s the case now.
Standing in the center of the stage, Biden spent the night watching everyone else challenging and criticizing each other while avoiding much mention of him. Only a couple spare remarks from Warren addressed Biden’s political record. Everyone else clearly thought their time was better spent going after the others.
It marks quite the comedown for Biden, the race’s polling leader for the better part of the last year. But after finishing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire — two early-state disasters — Biden is on the ropes. He’s struggling to raise money, his super PAC is gasping for air, and Bloomberg is spending heavily to try to fill the center-left vacuum.
Biden’s team said this week that he must finish in the top two in Nevada and then win South Carolina to be a contender on Super Tuesday. This debate suggests his rivals don’t think he’ll meet those marks.
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