Updated Feb 20, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Debate night: Democrats fight for make-or-break moments in Nevada

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg defended his wealth to his Democratic competitors in his debate debut, while Sen. Bernie Sanders, a front-runner, faced comparisons to President Trump over his populist appeals, at the ninth Democratic debate in Las Vegas Wednesday just days before the Nevada caucuses.

The big picture: Sanders argued that Bloomberg's version of centrism won't produce the voter turnout needed to beat Trump. Bloomberg retorted that he doesn't think there's "any chance, whatsoever" of Sanders beating Trump and struck at the senator's Medicare for All plan.

The Bloomberg pile-on

Sanders argues that Bloomberg's version of centrism won't produce the voter turnout needed to beat Trump. Bloomberg retorted that he doesn't think there's "any chance, whatsoever" of Sanders beating Trump and struck at the senator's Medicare for All plan.

  • Warren landed the night's first blow: "I'd like to talk about who we're running against. A billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse faced lesbians, and no, I'm not talking about Donald Trump. I'm talking about Mayor Bloomberg."
  • Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar added: "I think we need something different than Donald Trump. I don't think you look at Donald Trump and say, 'We need somebody richer in the White House.'"
  • Bloomberg countered with an electability argument, stating that he knows how to take on a conman like Trump and that he's the best equipped to beat the president.

Bloomberg took heat all around for his stop-and-frisk policy while he was New York mayor. "Mike Bloomberg has apologized for not fully understanding the full impact the NYPD’s practice of stop and frisk was having on Black and Latino communities," his campaign said in a statement released mid-debate.

On health care

Sanders was criticized for the behavior of his supporters and for his health care plan, after his supporters attacked the Culinary Workers Union in Nevada last week. Union officials said they were concerned that Sanders' proposal would take away their negotiated health care.

  • Sanders defended Medicare for All: "I will never sign a bill that will reduce the health care benefits [the Culinary Workers Union members] have."

And the candidates circled back to one of their most debated issues: Medicare for All versus expanding Obamacare.

  • Buttigieg promoted his plan, which would allow people to keep their private insurance: "This idea that the union members don't know what's good for them is the exact kind of conned sense and arrogance that makes people skeptical of the policies we've been putting forward.”
  • And Biden tapped into his years in the Obama administration: “I notice what everybody's talking about is the plan that I first introduced. That is to go and add to Obamacare, provide a public option, a Medicare-like option.”
On transparency

The candidates addressed transparency related to medical records and tax records. Questions have arisen about both Sanders' and Bloomberg's health. Both men are 78 years old. Sanders had a heart attack last year and has shared some medical reports, but says he will not release further records. Bloomberg also had heart surgery in 2000.

  • Bloomberg also says he cannot release his tax returns yet because he makes "a lot of money" and that he "can't go to Turbo Tax." He says they will be released in the upcoming weeks.
On employees and non-disclosure agreements

Bloomberg faced further questions over his record of making his employees sign non-disclosure agreements — particularly women who've accused the former mayor of inappropriate conduct.

  • Pressured by Warren to release those who signed from the agreements, Bloomberg stated: "None of them accused me of doing anything other than maybe they didn't like a joke I told."
  • Warren pressed on: "We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against."
  • Bloomberg stood firm on the arrangements: "I said we're not going to end these agreements because they were made consensually and they have every right to expect that they will stay private."
On climate change

The candidates highlighted their differences on fracking. Warren and Sanders have called for a total ban on fracking, a technique to extract oil and natural gas.

  • Klobuchar supports natural gas extracted via fracking as a "transitional fuel" toward a net-zero emissions while emphasizing she would review permits to ensure safety.
  • Bloomberg flat-out stated "we won't get rid of fracking."
    • "You want to go to all renewables. That's still many years from now," Bloomberg said.
On democratic socialism

Candidates debated the merits of democratic socialism — which Sanders openly embraces. Bloomberg argued: "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 responded: "I believe in democratic socialism for working people. Not billionaires."
On immigration

Candidates hit on immigration and the shaky status of DACA recipients under the Trump administration.

  • Klobuchar stated: "The best way to protect the dreamers is to have a new president."
  • Buttigieg touted his record of offering municipal I.D.s for DACA recipients and undocumented immigrants in his city.

Klobuchar rebutted Buttigieg, stating: "You've memorized a bunch of talking points and a bunch of things. But I can tell you one thing. With the people of this country want, they want a leader that has the heart for the immigrants of this country. And that is me. 

What's next: Democratic presidential contenders return to the debate stage in South Carolina on Tuesday, their last national exchange before the South Carolina primaries on Feb. 29 and high-stakes Super Tuesday on March 3.

Go deeper: A warning to Democrats on their 2020 message

Go deeper

Bloomberg's rough debut

Photo: John Locher/AP

Mike Bloomberg was booed during his debut debate as a Democratic presidential candidate — indicative of a rusty outing where the former New York mayor looked unprepared to respond to obvious lines of attack.

Why it matters ... The debate underscored the Bloomberg’s campaign biggest fear: It's hard to hide to his prickly demeanor. Bloomberg had all the time, practice and forewarning money could buy — and still struggled mightily on the public stage. 

4 takeaways from the Nevada Democratic debate

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The relative civility of the last eight Democratic debates was thrown by the wayside Wednesday night, the first debate to feature the billionaire "boogeyman," Michael Bloomberg, whose massive advertising buys and polling surge have drawn the ire of the entire field.

The big picture: Pete Buttigieg captured the state of the race early on, noting that after Super Tuesday, the "two most polarizing figures on this stage" — Bloomberg and democratic socialist Bernie Sanders — could be the only ones left competing for the nomination. The rest of candidates fought to stop that momentum.

Warren launches at Bloomberg: We can't "substitute one arrogant billionaire for another"

Bloomberg in Las Vegas, Nevada on Feb. 19. Photo: Bridget Bennett/AFP via Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth at Wednesday's Democratic debate painted New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the same kind of racist and sexist that Democrats have repeatedly accused President Trump of being.

What she's saying: "I'd like to talk about who we're running against. We're talking about a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And no, I'm not talking about Donald Trump, I'm talking about Mayor Bloomberg."