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5 Takeaways From the Democratic Debate in Las Vegas

February 20, 2020by Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
US-NEWS-DEMOCRATS-DEBATE-6-GET

For five of the candidates on Wednesday’s debate stage it was like another night at the office. The new addition, Michael Bloomberg, made this ninth round different and more antagonistic than the rest.

The face-to-face encounter, broadcast live from the Paris casino-resort in Las Vegas, was in effect a national debut for the former New York City mayor, forced to step out from behind his teleprompter-aided speeches and unprecedented advertising onslaught.

As it happens, Bloomberg won’t be on the ballot in Nevada; he’s chosen to skip the early contests to focus on the voting that takes place in 14 states on March 3, or Super Tuesday as it’s being billed. For others, the two hours in the TV floodlights offered the chance to revive a flagging campaign or turn in a momentum-building performance ahead of Saturday’s caucuses.

Here are five takeaways from Wednesday night’s fiery set-to on the Strip:

BULL’S-EYE ON BLOOMBERG

With a history of provocative remarks — on race, women, transgender people, millennials and much, much more — it seemed highly likely Bloomberg would be the focal point of the debate.

He was.

From the very first question, which led to an attack over New York City’s aggressive “stop-and-frisk” police tactics when he was mayor, to the end of the evening, Bloomberg was a constant target.

His epic wealth, his political history, his insistence on nondisclosure agreements from some former employees were among the abundant fodder. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar even managed a back-handed jab as she expressed her pleasure at Bloomberg joining the candidates onstage, saying he “shouldn’t be hiding behind his TV ads.”

Bloomberg made no apologies — for his riches, anyway. (He did express regret for the disproportionate impact the stop-and-frisk policy had on black and brown residents of New York.)

“I worked very hard for it,” he said of his many billions, adding he has given much of his money away — including, he added pointedly — a good deal to the Democratic Party, its candidates and causes.

Referring to his former neighbor from Manhattan now in the White House, Bloomberg offered a fight-fire-with-fire justification for his candidacy.

“I’m a New Yorker,” he said, “I know how to take on an arrogant con man.”

RUST NEVER SLEEPS

It’s been more than a decade since New York’s former mayor faced an opponent on the debate stage; the last time was in 2009, during his run for a third term in City Hall.

Facing a raft of far-more practiced rivals, Bloomberg was stiff and often stone-faced.

But he turned in at least a credible performance, though he surely made no friends among supporters of other candidates, especially a main foil, Bernie Sanders.

His voice thick with disdain, he referred to Sanders — the tribune of working people — as “a millionaire with three houses.”

Only in America, he said sarcastically.

SANDERS’ ELEVATED STATUS

After a narrow win in New Hampshire and virtual tie for first in Iowa, Sanders has surged in polls and arguably emerged as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

That made him a target like never before.

Sanders once more came under attack for his Medicare for All plan and vague explanation of how he would pass such an expansive piece of legislation — which has, at best, tepid support in Congress — and pay its gargantuan cost.

Rivals also went after Vermont’s senator over his refusal to release a fuller accounting of his medical condition; his spat with the Nevada’s powerful Culinary Union, which opposes his healthcare proposal; the predatory behavior of some on-line supporters, even his longtime status as an independent who formally joined the Democratic Party just last year for the sake of seeking its 2020 nomination

“Let’s put forward someone who’s actually a Democrat,” former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg taunted, a slap that applied as well to Bloomberg, who has been both a Republican and independent.

Sanders, unflustered, dished it back in return.

He suggested his record of labor support was second to none, defended his on-line army of supporters — blaming the toxicity on a tiny minority — and extended an invitation to any who doubted his recovery from a heart attack last fall.

“Follow me around the campaign trail 3, 4, 5 events a day,” the 78-year-old said. “See how you’re doing compared to me.”

HANGING BY FINGERNAILS

No two candidates have suffered a more dramatic decline than former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

At different times each was seen as the candidate to beat for the nomination. But after disappointing showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, both are struggling not just to stay in the top tier of contestants but, more gravely, keep their candidacies afloat.

Warren, especially, fought as though her very life was at stake. (A bad cold reduced her voice at times to a painful rasp).

She was relentless and scathing in her attacks on Bloomberg, who she depicted as no better than President Donald Trump. Why, she asked disparagingly, would Democrats want to “substitute one arrogant billionaire for another?”

She scoffed at his professed contrition, over police tactics and offensive comments about women, suggesting they were, at best, politically motivated and insincere.

She depicted Klobuchar as too timid to take on the Washington establishment and even took a rare shot at Sanders, her ideological ally, for failing to rein in his more obstreperous supporters.

“We are all responsible for our supporters and we need to step up,” she said. “That’s what leadership is all about.”

Biden was crisp and energetic, especially when he challenged Bloomberg over his stop-and-frisk policy which, the former vice president said, was halted only after the Obama administration intervened.

The question for both is whether their performances were too little too late.

FOUR’S A CROWD

Several candidates are elbowing to emerge as the favorite of more centrist Democrats.

The result Wednesday night was a pile-up in the middle, involving not just Bloomberg and Biden but Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who went at each other particularly hard.

When Klobuchar was asked about her recent failure at a Las Vegas forum to remember the name of Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, she described it is a momentary lapse.

Buttigieg suggested a larger failing, noting she is running for president based on her Washington experience but couldn’t, despite her role on committees overseeing border security and trade, answer even the simplest question

Klobuchar wheeled and cut him off. “Are you mocking me? she demanded. “Are you trying to say I’m dumb?”

Warren jumped in to defend Klobuchar, saying that “everybody on this stage” forgets a name sometimes.

Politics is one thing. The personal antagonism between Klobuchar and Buttigieg, two Midwesterners fighting for the same support, appears deep and real.

———

©2020 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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