Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Mike Bloomberg got into the 2020 race to stop Bernie Sanders and socialism. If he doesn't bounce back from this week's debate, he may seal the deal for both.

Why it matters: Bloomberg’s own campaign has warned that Sanders could lock up the nomination in mere weeks, thanks to rivals splitting the opposition vote. But Bloomberg’s own spending makes it harder for other rivals to cut through — and virtually assures he sucks up significant delegates.

  • A top Bloomberg official tells me the response is simple: Recover at the next debate — Tuesday in South Carolina.

Bloomberg warned in Salt Lake City yesterday: "Look, the real winner in the debate last night was Donald Trump. Because I worry that we may very well be on the way to nominating somebody who cannot win in November."

  • "And if we choose a candidate who appeals to a small base, like Sen. Sanders, it will be a fatal error."

Situational awareness: Bloomberg is polling at 15-plus in most states and his money can buy a viable floor, regardless of debate performances.

  • Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg could be viable alternatives, and Elizabeth Warren got her mojo back with her debate takedown of Bloomberg. But they're all playing with pennies compared with the former New York mayor's billions.
  • Sanders, if anything, is rising. National and state polls show him getting stronger and performing similarly to — and sometimes better than — rivals in head-to-head match-ups with President Trump.
  • Part of the Bloomberg theory of the case depends on a contested convention breaking his way. But David Plouffe, Barack Obama's campaign manager in 2008, said on MSNBC's post-debate show: "The notion that the Democratic Party is going to have party insiders overturn the will of the voters — I just don’t think it's gonna happen. So the clock is ticking."

Between the lines: For Bloomberg's dream scenario to play out, other moderate candidates would need to drop out quickly. And that's not happening.

  • The debate ramped up intrigue over this scenario: What if none of the remaining Democrats in the race drops out, no matter how poorly they perform through Super Tuesday, because they all want to hang on in case of a contested convention?

🥊 Quote of the day ... Bloomberg to a crowd in Salt Lake City: "So, how was your night last night?"

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