Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg immediately drew fire from his opponents in a Democratic Party presidential debate Wednesday, his first since launching his self-funded campaign fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising buys.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the current front runner for the Democratic nomination, criticized Bloomberg for his "Stop-and-Frisk" policy while he was mayor of New York while Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Americans don’t need to substitute “one arrogant billionaire for another.”
Bloomberg for his part said that if Sanders is the party’s nominee, “We will have Donald Trump for another four years and we can't stand that.”
Bloomberg has spent several hundred million dollars of his own fortune since jumping into the campaign late in November. He has seen his national poll numbers rise as he has sought to overwhelm the airwaves -- and his opponents -- with the message that he is the most experienced and best funded candidate to defeat President Donald Trump in November.
Sanders has been extending his lead in national polls since winning the New Hampshire primary earlier this month.
Even before Wednesday’s debate began, Sanders and other rivals were taking rhetorical aim at Bloomberg. In addition to Bloomberg’s support of “Stop-and-Frisk” they've pointed to his sexist remarks while running his eponymous media business.
During the debate, Bloomberg appeared to be rocked back on his heels by questions about sexual harassment, and non-disclosure agreements between him and women at his media company.
Bloomberg said his company has many women in high-paying jobs who are paid exactly the same as men in those jobs. He also pointed to positive workplace ratings for the company.
Warren countered that Bloomberg’s defense amounted to saying “I was nice to some women,” as the former mayor noticeably rolled his eyes. And despite repeated questions from Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden, Bloomberg said he would not release the women involved from the non-disclosure agreements.
In another exchange, Sanders attacked billionaires “like Bloomberg” who effectively pay lower taxes than the middle class, prompting Bloomberg to interject “Who wrote the code? You and 99 other senators.”
Asked by a moderator if he deserved all his money, Bloomberg said “Yes. I worked very hard for it.” He added that he’s giving most of it away, "including a large chunk to the Democratic party."
Bloomberg said many of Sanders’ proposals, including one to put workers on corporate boards, wouldn’t work. “We’re not going to throw out capitalism. It’s ridiculous.”
Bloomberg's team has sought to suggest that Sanders could walk away with the nomination as early as next month, virtually "guaranteeing" Trump’s reelection in November. Head-to-head poll numbers between Sanders and Trump dispute that claim, however.
Bloomberg designed his campaign on the premise he could rally more moderate Democrats as Biden’s campaign faltered. Biden put in dismal performances in the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary earlier this month. He’s relying on a strong performance in South Carolina to revive his campaign before Super Tuesday on March 3.
Biden appeared charged up Wednesday, and used much of the debate to emphasize his experience, noting at the close that Las Vegas was the scene of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history and adding "I'm the only one who's beaten the NRA nationally and I beat them twice."
Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigeig sought to place himself squarely between Sanders and Bloomberg saying "We shouldn't have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another one who wants to buy this party out."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who came in a strong third in New Hampshire, focused her appeal on Nevada voters, saying they understand that they don't have to agree with the eventual nominee over every issue, but that whoever is nominated must have heart.
Bloomberg’s name won’t be on any ballots until Super Tuesday when 10 states, including Texas and California, will hold presidential primaries.
Billionaire investor Tom Steyer and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard both failed to qualify for the debate.
Nevada’s caucuses, where Sanders currently holds the lead in polls, are scheduled for Feb. 22.
South Carolina’s primary is slated for Sat. Feb. 29.