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.
1. As Axios previewed this morning, the candidates came armed with decades of opposition research designed to paint Bloomberg as a Democratic Trump — an egomaniac New York billionaire stained by sexism and racial prejudice, and hell-bent on buying power and puppeteering mass media.
- That was clear within minutes, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren launched into the first of many attacks: "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."
- Bloomberg's record continued to be savaged throughout the night as he faced questions about his support for stop-and-frisk, endorsement of former President George W. Bush, history of sexist comments, non-disclosure agreements at his company, tax returns and more.
- Bloomberg's best moments of the night came when the onslaught was directed at the other front-runner, Bernie Sanders, and he was able to fade into the background.
2. The biggest beneficiary of Bloomberg's presence was Warren, who found the foil she desperately needed after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. She faced questions after the New Hampshire debate about why she didn't get more speaking time, and it was clear she wasn't going to let that happen again.
- With little to lose, Warren targeted nearly every candidate on health care, calling Buttigieg's plan "a slogan that was thought out by his consultants," Klobuchar's plan "a Post-it Note — insert plan here," and jabbing Sanders for "relentlessly attacking everyone" who questions his version of Medicare for All.
- A Warren aide tweeted toward the end of the debate that the campaign raised $425,000 in 30 minutes. If this debate doesn't boost her polling numbers, it's unlikely any debate will.
3. Joe Biden, long the front-runner but increasingly an afterthought, had one of his strongest debates of this cycle. The surge of Bloomberg, whom Biden has accused of falsely touting an endorsement from former President Obama in his campaign ads, seemed to energize the former vice president, who accused the billionaire of being a Republican.
- Biden arguably needs to win in South Carolina, long viewed as his firewall due to its significant black population, if his campaign is to remain viable long-term.
4. Buttigieg and Klobuchar, two Midwestern moderates fighting for a similar bloc of voters, faced off in some of the most heated — and seemingly personal — clashes of the night.
- Klobuchar accused the former South Bend, Ind., mayor of insinuating she was "dumb" and unqualified for not knowing the name of Mexico's president, and later quipped: “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete." She left the stage at the end of the night without shaking his hand.
- Both candidates performed well in New Hampshire, splitting the moderate vote as Biden continued his free-fall. But with little support among minority communities and Bloomberg consolidating support in Super Tuesday states, Buttigieg and Klobuchar face an existential threat to each others' campaigns going forward.
The bottom line: The big winner of the night was likely the front-runner Bernie Sanders. He faced the usual criticism on the cost of his plans and his self-identifying democratic socialist label, but the novelty and bitterness of the attacks on Bloomberg is what will be remembered from tonight.