Updated Feb 20, 2020 - Politics & Policy

What to watch in the Nevada debate

Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Cengiz Yardages and Mario Tama/Getty Images

Michael Bloomberg's wealth will fuel rather than shield him from tests and attacks when he makes his Democratic primary debate debut on the stage tonight in Las Vegas.

The state of play: Bernie Sanders is still the front-runner. So the other candidates must weigh which of the two presents a bigger threat to their viability: Sanders, with his combined delegate, polling and grassroots momentum? Or Bloomberg, with his bottomless budget?

  • The other Democrats on stage tonight with Bloomberg and Sanders are familiar faces: Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden.
  • Tom Steyer, who's been on every other debate stage, did not make the cut.

Why it matters: Increasingly, this looks like a contest between two highly differentiated choices, each of whom comes from outside the Democratic Party.

  • Sanders (a democratic socialist) and Bloomberg (who was a Republican and independent before affiliating as a Democrat two years ago) have nearly 44% of the share of nationwide polls combined, and that's only trending up.

The big picture: Bloomberg's unorthodox and self-funded campaign is drawing resistance from Democrats denouncing big money in politics, while Sanders' populist overtures and playing to the base have also prompted comparisons to Trump.

  • During a CNN town hall last night, when asked about the heart attack he suffered in October, Sanders said he wouldn't release more of his medical records beyond the doctors' letters he released in December.
  • Expect more questions about this to come up tonight, but also look for how Biden targets Sanders on his gun safety record, health care and immigration in particular, per a senior Biden campaign official.
  • And watch for Buttigieg to turn his focus to Klobuchar, whose third-place finish in New Hampshire is a more immediate threat to his share of support than Bloomberg.

Investigative reporting and opposition research on decades of Bloomberg's policies, statements, lawsuits and legal settlements have been unleashed in recent days. This gives debate moderators and rivals new opportunities to question Bloomberg about accusations of sexism, racial insensitivity and controversies in his business and as New York mayor.

  • Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders' national press secretary, tweeted that "Bloomberg will surely be forced to defend" various "claims of racial & sexual harassment" that have come to light in recent weeks.
  • Elizabeth Warren tweeted yesterday: “It’s a shame Mike Bloomberg can buy his way into the debate," and said voters will get "a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire."
  • In a call with reporters today, senior Biden campaign officials made it clear that Biden is angry that Bloomberg's ads make it seem like former President Barack Obama has endorsed him this cycle when Obama is deliberately staying on the sidelines.

Be smart: Bloomberg knows it's coming, has rehearsed his retorts, readied ads and policy plans to deflect, and is expected to unleash $1.5 billion more on ads and staff to clean up any damage.

The bottom line: Bloomberg has been able to run an unorthodox presidential campaign and control the narrative around his candidacy through the millions of dollars he's spent so far on ads — until tonight.

Go deeper

What to watch in tonight's Democratic debate

Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Colorado. Photo: Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Bernie Sanders is now the clear front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and his opponents are ready to try to knock him down at tonight's debate in Charleston, South Carolina — especially Michael Bloomberg, who was the punching bag at the Las Vegas debate.

Why it matters: This is the last debate before Super Tuesday, when Sanders is expected to win California and Texas and could secure an insurmountable lead for the Democratic nomination. That's a direct threat to the entire field, but especially to Bloomberg, who skipped the early states to focus on the March 3 contests.

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.