Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Here's the growing dilemma for 2020 Democrats vying for a one-on-one showdown with frontrunner Bernie Sanders: Do they have the guts — and the money — to first stop Mike Bloomberg?

Why it matters: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren all must weigh the costs of punching Bloomberg where he looks most vulnerable: stop-and-frisk, charges of sexism, billionaire entitlement. The more zealous the attacks, the greater the risk he turns his campaign ATM against them.

  • They're already struggling to catch up with Sanders in national support and campaign dollars. Turning their focus toward Bloomberg only complicates that task.
  • There's another risk, at least for the moderates: Weakening the one who may be best poised to stop Sanders, a democratic socialist, if they fail themselves.

The biggest test so far will come Wednesday night at the Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas, just days ahead of the Nevada caucuses.

  • Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren will be on the stage — and Bloomberg, who hasn't been eligible for earlier debates, is poised for a last-minute qualification.
  • So far, Bloomberg has been focusing his hundreds of millions in advertising on President Trump — not his primary rivals.

All the Democratic rivals have raised concerns about Bloomberg on the trail since he jumped in the race in late November, largely around his wealth and self-funding.

But in the past couple of weeks, Bloomberg's climb in the polls and saturation of the airwaves have goosed those dynamics and inspired an acceleration of opposition research and investigative reporting into his decades as a businessman and New York mayor.

  • Biden told NBC's Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press" on Sunday that "billions of dollars, can take you a long, long way" but that "you all are going to start focusing on him like you have on me, which — I'm not complaining."
  • Klobuchar said on the same program that Bloomberg "just can't hide behind the airwaves. He has to answer questions and of course, I think he should be on that debate stage."
  • Warren, whose standing has slid as Sanders consolidates progressives' support, sees through Bloomberg a badly needed chance to regain her footing with her credentials as a protector of consumers against big banks and Wall Street.
  • The female candidates also may indirectly benefit when male rivals are vulnerable to charges of sexism.

The big question: Do these Democrats benefit strategically if Sanders leads the attacks on Bloomberg and takes the brunt of his return fire? Or must they amp up their own criticisms of Bloomberg to increase their chances of peeling away some of his supporters?

  • Sanders has eagerly attacked the idea of Bloomberg as the party's nominee, saying at a rally on Saturday in Las Vegas: “We will not create the energy and excitement we need to defeat Donald Trump if that candidate pursued, advocated for, and enacted, racist policies like stop-and-frisk."
  • Team Trump is testing the waters, too. Kellyanne Conway told Fox News Sunday that Bloomberg's past comments and lawsuits are "fair game" and seem "far worse" than the notorious statements Trump himself has made about women.

The big picture: By not competing in the four early states, Bloomberg has gone basically unchallenged, allowing him to define himself without interference or really any debate. This has made him a top-tier candidate and the only one with the certain cash to run to the end.

  • The biggest threat to him is a sustained assault on his record not by Sanders, who comes from the other end of the party, but from the more moderate alternatives.
  • Each day they wait, Bloomberg grows stronger. Each day he grows stronger, his case for being the electable one strengthens.

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