Six Democratic candidates took to the stage in Las Vegas on Wednesday evening in advance of Saturday’s caucuses in the state.
It was the ninth debate of this cycle for Democrats but the first to feature former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has been rising in national polls and spending lavishly on his campaign.
Who were the winners and losers?
Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll 2020 Democratic candidates support Las Vegas casino workers on debate day Sanders takes lead in new Hill/HarrisX poll MORE (D-Mass.)
Warren, coming off a disappointing fourth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, needed to roll the dice in Vegas. She did — and won.
The Massachusetts senator and former Harvard Law School professor is a formidable debater in general but she was especially focused and forceful Wednesday.
More importantly, perhaps, she was the clear winner of the debate’s most memorable moment.
That happened when the topic arose of Bloomberg’s treatment of women.
Asked by co-moderator Hallie Jackson about alleged sexist comments, Bloomberg tried to pivot to reference the number of women who held senior roles in his company and during his mayoral administration.
“I hope you heard what his defense was: ‘I've been nice to some women,’ ” Warren shot back. “That just doesn't cut it.”
Warren went on to pummel Bloomberg at length for his refusal to release women who sued his company from nondisclosure agreements.
Warren had already telegraphed what was coming when she began the night with a zinger drawing a parallel between Bloomberg and President TrumpDonald John TrumpFed saw risks to US economy fading before coronavirus spread quickened Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Britain announces immigration policy barring unskilled migrants MORE.
“I’d like to talk about who we're running against,” she began. “A billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And, no, I'm not talking about Donald Trump. I'm talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
Warren faces an extremely steep uphill climb to get back into serious contention for the nomination. She hasn’t finished in the top two in either of the first contests, and she has been eclipsed on the left by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Biden will go after Bloomberg, Sanders at Las Vegas debate, aides say MORE (I-Vt.).
But she could hardly have hoped for a better night than she got Wednesday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
Sanders went into the debate as the undisputed front-runner for the nomination.
He leads the RealClearPolitics national polling average by a full 10 points, has an army of intense supporters and is the clear favorite to win Nevada’s caucuses.
All Sanders needed to do on the debate stage was avoid a glaring misstep. He easily cleared that bar.
No one did Sanders significant damage, and he probably benefited from the volume of fire turned on Bloomberg. Sanders himself mentioned Bloomberg’s support for stop-and-frisk in his first remarks of the night.
When Sanders’s rivals did try to attack him, he rebuffed them with relative ease.
Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll 2020 Democratic candidates support Las Vegas casino workers on debate day What to watch in the debate tonight MORE (D) tried to raise a spat between Sanders and the powerful Culinary Workers Union in Nevada, only to get slapped down.
“We’ve more union support than you’ve ever dreamed of,” the Vermont senator said.
Love him or hate him, there is no reason to assume Sanders’s trajectory toward the nomination is about to shift anytime soon.
Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean Klobuchar2020 Democratic candidates support Las Vegas casino workers on debate day Democratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe What to watch in the debate tonight MORE (D-Minn.)
Klobuchar had revived her campaign with her performance in a previous debate, days before the New Hampshire primary. She climbed to a surprise third-place finish in the Granite State in the immediate aftermath.
The Minnesotan had another strong — though not quite so stellar — night on Wednesday.
There is no doubt about the brand of politics Klobuchar is selling — a practical centrism rooted in her Midwestern upbringing. The fading fortunes of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Biden will go after Bloomberg, Sanders at Las Vegas debate, aides say MORE give her some room to grow.
Klobuchar emphasized her modest roots after Bloomberg made an ill-advised reference to how a businessman of his wealth could hardly use Turbo Tax to do his tax returns.
She referenced her husband, saying he did the couple’s tax returns and they “probably could go to Turbo Tax.”
Later in the debate, Klobuchar’s exchanges with Buttigieg grew particularly testy, with her accusing him at one point of implying she was stupid.
During another exchange, she pushed back against the former mayor’s propensity to be sanctimonious, telling him, “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.”
It’s still very hard to see a plausible route to the nomination for Klobuchar. But she had a good night nonetheless.
Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg is under pressure on several fronts.
He is polling poorly in Nevada and in the fourth state to vote, South Carolina. His strong showing in Iowa and New Hampshire has not been as transformative as his supporters had hoped. And his position in the centrist lane in the primary is under serious threat from Bloomberg.
A stand-out night would have helped, and he didn’t get one.
He did not have any obvious gaffe, either.
Buttigieg, on Wednesday, was OK. And that probably isn’t good enough.
Former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergBiden will go after Bloomberg, Sanders at Las Vegas debate, aides say Sanders takes lead in new Hill/HarrisX poll Bloomberg campaign warns of 'insurmountable' Sanders lead if moderates split votes MORE
Make no mistake about it, Bloomberg had a dreadful night.
He came under attack from virtually every other candidate. That was no surprise — they were never going to let him away scot-free on a debate stage having seen him lay out about $350 million in advertising.
More shocking was that Bloomberg was so ineffectual in defending himself. The way Warren filleted him over the nondisclosure agreements was only the most glaring example.
He was hesitant in his defense even of stop and frisk, despite the fact that it was an iron certainty the topic would be raised.
Bloomberg also displayed a kind of testiness that is familiar to New Yorkers from his three terms as mayor.
One example was the “Turbo Tax” reference for which Klobuchar punished him. Another came when he rolled his eyes at Warren.
More generally the former mayor’s manner of vigorously defending his own vast wealth — he is reportedly one of the 20 richest people in the world — seems politically problematic in today’s Democratic Party.
It is, of course, possible that none of this will matter. Bloomberg will not be on the ballot until Super Tuesday, March 3, by which time memories of this debate will have faded — or perhaps been buried beneath an avalanche of ads.
But none of that changes the fact that this was a strikingly poor performance.
Former Vice President Joe Biden
Biden’s campaign is in dire straits.
He came fifth in the New Hampshire primary, there are signs that his bedrock support among black voters is beginning to erode and, according to one national poll released early Wednesday by ABC News and The Washington Post, his support has halved in the past month.
Even in better times earlier this cycle, Biden was an indifferent debater. The same was true on Wednesday, when he seemed to fade into the margins at times.
He occasionally came back with some fire in his belly — particularly when arguing that he had racked up real accomplishments during his long political career while some of his rivals have merely talked airily of aspirations.
But Biden was overshadowed once more by most people on the stage, and that’s a very bad sign when his campaign is already so troubled.