The former New York mayor knew he’d face fierce heat Wednesday night from rivals who resent his stunning spending spree and his failure to take part in the first four nominating contests. Bloomberg tried to keep his focus on his central argument of the night: That the presidency is a management job, and he is a proven manager, unlike Trump.
But nothing could prepare him for the welcome that materialized and that left him struggling to counter attacks on his political and personal vulnerabilities.
“And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg,” said Warren, who drew gasps from the audience and debated with the desperation of a candidate fighting to save her campaign.
The attacks often left the former New York mayor flatfooted. He struggled to parry attacks everyone knew were coming. By appearing to mock Turbo Tax online preparation kits, he looked out of touch with the modest economic circumstances of regular Americans.
And he was unable to display empathy for women who are victims of workplace discrimination or Americans who struggle through life without his riches — as his foes slammed him over his past opposition to the minimum wage. Still, he did point out that he was spending his money in philanthropic ventures — and to get rid of Trump.
Even Bloomberg’s campaign seemed to admit he underwhelmed in the hideously tough assignment of walking into a debate cold after his rivals had been waging war for months.
“He was just warming up tonight. We fully expect Mike will continue to build on tonight’s performance when he appears on the stage in South Carolina next Tuesday,” the campaign said.
In traditional presidential politics, Bloomberg’s struggles on Wednesday night would pitch his campaign into serious trouble.
But while millions of people watched the debate on television and will see clips on social media, Bloomberg has been mounting the most concentrated cash dump in primary history.
It’s possible that far more Americans will see his soaring ads presenting him as a moderate voice of common sense and a master manager than ever learn of his debate stage stumbles.
His $400 million push has already lifted him to second place in national polls. And Bloomberg has far more cash than his rivals to play across the entire national battlefield on Super Tuesday.
It may take a few days to find out whether Bloomberg’s rivals managed to carve out a contrast between the sunny image in his campaign ads and the sometimes terse figure on stage.
And then there’s the question of whether debates matter that much anyway. It could be that the cacophony of multiple, fierce attacks from a presidential field piling on will only underscore Bloomberg’s argument to centrist voters that he’s different.
Sanders escapes without serious damage
And there was another dynamic at play on Wednesday that suggests that even uninspiring debate performances will not fatally hole Bloomberg’s campaign for weeks to come.
Bernie Sanders seemed to escape the debate without a significant blow to his now front-running campaign — and had the advantage at least four other centrist rivals arguing he’s too radical to beat Trump but who have failed to slow him down.
If Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg don’t find a way to consolidate the political middle soon, Bloomberg’s massive resources could find him a path.
“I don’t think there’s any chance of the senator beating President Trump,” Bloomberg said of Sanders, spelling out the best argument for his candidacy, save his massive fortune.
The financial data billionaire also drew on his own professional heritage to try to defuse the attacks and to present himself as the antidote to the chaos ripping through Washington.
“This is a manager job and Donald Trump is not a manager,” Bloomberg said.
“This is a job where you have to build teams. He doesn’t have teams so he makes decisions without knowing what’s going or the implications for what he does. We cannot run the railroad this way,” he said.
In effect, Bloomberg is asking Democrats to overlook the fact that he hardly touches the party’s heart — and may be an imperfect messenger for grass roots energy that is moving to the left. He’s implicitly arguing that only he can beat Sanders and oust Trump from the Oval Office.
‘Why not chose a Democrat?’
Thursday’s debate also revealed another irony of the Democratic race that could come down to a battle between Sanders and Bloomberg.
“Most Americans don’t see where they fit if they’ve got to choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power,” Buttigieg said.
“Let’s put forward somebody who is actually a Democrat.”
Warren was the candidate who seemed to realize she had most to lose after poor performances in Iowa and New Hampshire and failing to oust Sanders as the champion of the left.
At times, the Massachusetts senator seemed to seize control of the night from the moderators and forensically dismantled Bloomberg’s answers to her attacks.
“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,” Warren said.
The former New York City mayor has been beset by accusations that he made sexually suggestive comments in the 1990s, and that Bloomberg LP was a hostile workplace for women. His campaign has said that he sometimes made comments that did not reflect his values and that his company has always elevated women.
But Biden also faces an existential challenge to his candidacy from Bloomberg, who is essentially arguing that he’s better placed to fulfill the mission around which the former Vice President has anchored his campaign beating Trump.
Biden jabbed Bloomberg over a controversial policing tactic when he was New York mayor, for which he later apologized.
He said Bloomberg backed “stop and frisk — throwing close to five million young black men up against a wall.”
Both Buttigieg and Klobuchar also lined up Bloomberg — but also got involved in a bitter personal spat that appeared to reveal a real and growing dislike between them.