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Mike Bloomberg ‘weathered the storm’ in his first Democratic presidential debate

But ‘a lot of squabbling’ among six candidates, Salt Lake County mayor says

SHARE Mike Bloomberg ‘weathered the storm’ in his first Democratic presidential debate
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Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, left, listens as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speak during a Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas, hosted by NBC News and MSNBC.

John Locher, Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — Mike Bloomberg’s hefty investment in Utah and other Super Tuesday states was on the line in his first Democratic primary debate Wednesday as the five other candidates on stage also hoping to take on President Donald Trump in November came out swinging at him — and at each other.

During the two-hour debate, the billionaire former New York City mayor took hits from fellow moderates — former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Vice President Joe Biden — as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, seen as the most left-leaning candidates.

Right at the start, Sanders brought up Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” policy aimed at minorities in New York, calling it “outrageous” and saying it wasn’t the way to attract the voters needed to stop Trump from being reelected. Warren called Bloomberg “arrogant” and repeated crude comments he has allegedly made about women.

But Sanders, who is surging ahead of the field in polls, was also a target for much of the debate that took place in a theater at the Paris hotel on the Las Vegas strip. Nevada is the next state to vote, with early voting already underway and caucus day set for Saturday.

“Let’s put forth somebody who is actually a Democrat,” Buttigieg said.

Bloomberg later referred to Sanders when he said the country’s “best known socialist is a millionaire” who has three homes, a line Bloomberg’s senior campaign strategist, Howard Wolfson, told a crowd of reporters in the spin room was the best of the night.

Wolfson said he believes the debate narrowed the race for the Democratic nomination to just two candidates, Bloomberg and Sanders. He said Bloomberg’s opponents came “loaded for bear. He was everyone’s target. I think he weathered the storm.”

Bloomberg largely tried to stay out of the fray, describing himself as “a New Yorker. I know how to take on an arrogant con man like Donald Trump.” However, he repeatedly had to defend his personal wealth, policies as mayor and past treatment of women that led to non-disclosure agreements.

Warren and Biden both pressed Bloomberg about releasing women who wanted to share their stories from the deals, but Bloomberg declined, calling those agreements “consensual” and suggesting they were a result of women who “didn’t like a joke I told.”

Discussions about issues such as health care all seemed to dissolve into sharp exchanges between the candidates, such as when Klobuchar accused Buttigieg of calling her “dumb” because he questioned her foreign policy knowledge.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who endorsed Buttigieg, was in the debate audience and said, “with a lot of squabbling, I felt Pete held his composure yet addressed key issues of concern.” She said even though it’s early in the race for delegates, “the candidates clearly took the gloves off.”

But asked if the friction turned off Utah voters, who typically shy away from negative campaigning, Wilson said “it’s too early and there are still too many caucuses, primaries and debates ahead to have tonight’s debate set the tone for what’s ahead.”

Jeff Weaver, a senior advisor to Sanders, told the Deseret News “the tone was a little sharper than past debates.” But he said the Vermont senator “gave as good as he got. The truth of the matter is voters know Bernie Sanders ... so how effective those hits are remains to be seen.”

Bloomberg has the biggest campaign operation by far in Utah ahead of the March 3 presidential primary election, with 19 paid staffers in the state. He’s also spent the most on advertising, now $3 million on TV commercials and other spots that have been running in Utah since he announced his White House bid in November.

“That’s a big number,” Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent and anchor of MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” told the Deseret News, calling it critical to his campaign “to have so many staff people and put so much money on the table in terms of TV ads so he’ll get name recognition.”

She said that could all be undone by Bloomberg’s first appearance in a presidential primary debate, warning that “if he doesn’t appear accessible to the American voters tonight, all the money in the world that he’s spent on advertising won’t really help him because he’s got to prove some authenticity.” 

The other big story in the debate, she said, is the rise of Sanders in new national polling after strong showings in the first two states to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire, cementing him “as the front-runner, and a lot of people in the Democratic Party establishment are nervous about that.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez touted the “palpable” enthusiasm nationwide among Democrats in a brief interview with the Deseret News, citing record turnout in New Hampshire’s recent primary election and large numbers of early voters in Nevada.

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From left, Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas, hosted by NBC News and MSNBC.

John Locher, Associated Press

There’s one more election, South Carolina’s primary on Feb. 29, before Utah joins more than a dozen Super Tuesday states for the first time. It’s not clear whether some candidates still in the race, including Biden, will make it that far. But Perez suggested it may be a while before Democrats settle on a nominee.

“The beauty of the Democratic primary is this is a race to 1,991 delegates. So those delegates in Utah matter. Those delegates in Idaho matter. Those delegates in every state matter,” Perez said. “Ask Barack Obama. That’s how he won” in the former president’s first run in 2008, against Hillary Clinton.

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Cio Cordero, Utah field organizer for Mike Bloomberg, passes out Bloomberg shirts as supporters wait in line for the Democratic presidential candidate’s rally at Venue 6SIX9 in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Utah has 29 Democratic delegates at stake on Super Tuesday, and Bloomberg, who is set to make his second campaign appearance in Salt Lake City in a month on Thursday, isn’t the only candidate paying attention to the state.

Buttigieg attracted an estimated 4,500 people to a rally Monday in Salt Lake City and is now paying two staffers to oversee some 2,000 volunteers statewide. Klobuchar’s campaign has promised staff in every Super Tuesday state. Last year, Biden held a fundraiser in Park City and Warren held a campaign event downtown.

Sanders also has a presence in Utah. He was the overwhelming choice in 2016 of Utah Democrats, who cast their ballots at party caucus meetings rather than in a primary. Jodi Clemens, who left Iowa to head up Sanders’ efforts in Utah, is looking for another big win in the state on March 3 — and maybe even in November.

Utah is a reliably Republican state that has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, but Clemens said there’s “a lot of buyer’s remorse” among Utahns who voted in 2016 for Trump, in addition to the campaign’s efforts to register new voters already sold on Sanders’ support for Medicare for all and other progressive policies.

She said Sanders has launched a $5.5 million advertising buy in Super Tuesday states, including Utah. Asked about competing with Bloomberg’s billions, she said Sanders’ campaign is “relying on people to make the comparison on their own of a grassroots organization being funded by the people versus the Bloomberg approach.”