Michael Bloomberg emerged as the clear loser within minutes of the ninth Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday night as he took heavy fire from nearly every candidate on stage and never recovered. Bernie Sanders launched into stop-and-frisk, Amy Klobuchar rebuked his campaign’s attacks on hers, Joe Biden attacked his patchy record as mayor of New York. Even the moderators piled on. But no one cut deeper than Elizabeth Warren, who humiliated the multi-billionaire on his history of sexism.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against, a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians,” she said referring to comments made in 1990 about the British royal family, “I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
Warren, the undeniable winner of this debate, was just getting warmed up. Against a background of disappointing results in Iowa and New Hampshire, this debate represented an opportunity for her to reverse the fortunes of her fading campaign—and she delivered. If there’s one thing we’ve learned tonight, Warren is one progressive capitalist you cannot simply erase.
She was the most effective candidate in holding Bloomberg to account, calling out his company’s record of using nondisclosure agreements to muzzle former employees over harassment allegations. She pressed Bloomberg, on stage, to release the women from the NDAs and watched him flub a response.
“Maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he stated, prompting gasps from the audience.
Additionally, she highlighted the human impact of victims of the draconian “stop-and-frisk” policy in New York under his mayoralty, criticizing his apology as being focused on the failed outcomes, rather than the victims.
Warren’s polling numbers have been weakening as progressives rallied around Sanders’ campaign in recent months. As critics and supporters questioned whether her campaign has the infrastructure, money and momentum to capitalize on her highlight tonight, Warren’s campaign announced that the first half of the debate had become the senator’s best hour of fundraising to date.
Tonight’s debate had a chaotic, fiery energy which led to less substantive policy discussions but a clearer view of how each candidate would perform in head-to-heads. With moderate voters yet to coalesce around a single candidate, viewers had a chance to see who really wants this and who might be effective in what would be a heavyweight showdown with President Donald Trump.
Sanders produced another solid debate performance and benefited most from Bloomberg acting as a punching bag for the other candidates. He was able to defend the label “socialist” by calling out existing policies of corporate welfare and made no apology for his campaign fighting for the working people of America. When attacked by Pete Buttigieg on whether his supporters harassed the leadership of the Nevada Culinary union, Sanders responded, “We have more union support than you’ve ever dreamed of,” drawing a distinction between the on-the-ground reality of his support and the Twitter-based online discourse surrounding the primary.
Biden arrived ready to tussle with Bloomberg and Sanders—hours before the debate his campaign warned reporters he was going in “aggressive”—but the former vice president quickly sidelined himself as a debate bystander. Where did Biden go? No candidates went for him. Though he carried his newfound energy from last week’s New Hampshire debate, nothing he said tonight has indicated he will regain the campaign frontrunner status. Biden is still too reliant on his lengthy record, rather than articulating a clear case for his presidency.
Klobuchar and Buttigieg clashed repeatedly on stage with neither candidate coming out the clear winner in any exchange. Buttgieg attacked Klobuchar for a gaffe made earlier in the week, when she was unable to recall the Mexican president’s name. Klobuchar responded “Are you trying to say I’m dumb? Are you mocking me here, Pete?”
Later in the debate, Klobuchar hit back, criticizing Buttigieg’s electability record, saying that he lost the race for state treasurer “by 20 points.” Both candidates needed a knockout performance here, but their visible personal animosity only resulted in a double K.O. Both performed well relative to expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire, but needed to build on this momentum as the primary moves into larger, more diverse states over the next month. It’s not clear that either candidate delivered a performance that will win over any more supporters ahead of the Nevada caucus this weekend.
Buttgieg Takes Aim at Sanders and Bloomberg In One Sentence
Shortly after all the other candidates brutally tag-teamed Bloomberg in the opening round, Buttigieg got in on the action—using the opportunity to also take on Sanders, his leading rival.
“We could wake up two weeks from today, the day after Super Tuesday, and the only candidates left standing will be Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg,” Buttigieg said. “Let’s put forward somebody who is actually a Democrat. We shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out.”
Sanders didn’t hesitate in firing back: “Maybe it’s time for the working class of this country to have a little bit of power in Washington rather than your billionaire campaign contributors.”
Bloomberg Accuses Sanders of Being a Communist
Bloomberg aimed his most fiery shot at Sanders over the self-described democratic socialist’s economic policy proposals.
“I can’t think of a way that would make it easier for Donald Trump to get re-elected than listening to this conversation,” the billionaire said. “This is ridiculous. We’re not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism and it just didn’t work.”
Sanders dismissed the comments as a “cheap” shot. “We are living in many ways in a socialist society right now,” the senator said. “The problem is, as Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us, we have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”
Later, the two candidates sparred over whether billionaires should exist. “We have a grotesque and immoral distribution of wealth and income. Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. That’s wrong. That’s immoral,” Sanders said.
“I can’t speak for all billionaires,” Bloomberg responded, “All I know is I’ve been very lucky, made a lot of money and I’m giving it all away to make this country better. A good chunk of it goes to the Democratic Party as well.”
Klobuchar and Buttigieg Spar Over Immigration
One of the few substantive exchanges between these moderates tonight was over immigration, which saw both candidates touting their pro-immigration stances while also digging at each other’s records.
When asked how they would safeguard the country’s Dreamers, Klobuchar said the solution lies in electing a new president, before pivoting to touting her own electability and history of support for immigrants. Buttigieg wasted no time leaping to attack her vote to make English the country’s national language, and her support for Kevin McAleenan, the first Customs and Border Protection commissioner appointed by Trump.
Samuel Bolger contributed to this analysis.