There have been contentious arguments, strong policy disagreements and tense exchanges on the eight debate stages thus far in the primary cycle, and then there was Wednesday night’s brawl in Las Vegas.
From its onset, the debate shedded any semblance of civility and exposed the strengths and weakness of the six Democratic contenders that stood on the stage at a critical time for their campaigns, just days before Nevadans hold their caucuses and weeks before the Super Tuesday contests award the largest swath of delegates yet.
He may not have appeared on a single ballot, or won a single delegate, but former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the newcomer on the stage, was the lightning rod at the center of near-constant attacks, turning in an uneven performance as the field grapples with his rise in the polls.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren turned in a fiesty performance, going after Bloomberg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who in turn had testy moments between each other. Former Vice President Joe Biden also mixed it up with Bloomberg as he tries to revive his faltering campaign. Meanwhile Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has taken a sizable lead in recent national polls, fended off attacks on policy and his personal health.
Here are five takeaways from a Democratic debate full of fireworks on the Las Vegas Strip.
Everybody versus Bloomberg
With perhaps the entire field recognizing the urgency of Wednesday’s debate, it took less than 10 minutes for the most divisive debate of the cycle to emerge.
The gloves came off, early and often, for the Democratic contenders eager to poke holes in Bloomberg’s record and argument for why he’s the best candidate to beat Donald Trump in November.
“I'd like to talk about who we're running against. 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 said to audible gasps in the debate hall, alluding to the slew of recent stories on the mistreatment of women in the workplace at Bloomberg’s companies.
“Let's put forward someone who's actually a Democrat...We shouldn't have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out,” Buttigieg said slamming both Bloomberg and Sanders.
“The mayor says that he has a great record, that he’s done these wonderful things. Well, the fact -- the fact of the matter is, he has not managed his city very, very well when he was there. He didn't get a whole lot done,” said Biden, who went after Bloomberg’s past criticism of the landmark Affordable Care Act and his criminal justice record.
For his part, Bloomberg largely tried to stay above the fray, defending the astronomical amount of money he’s poured into his campaign, more than $400 million to this point.
“I'm spending that money to get rid of Donald Trump, the worst president we've ever had and If I can get that done, it will be a great contribution to America and to my kids,” Bloomberg said.
A feisty Warren comes out swinging and doesn’t stop
Warren is in a fight for her political life, and Wednesday night made it clear she’s willing to fight harder than ever before to get back to the top of the pack.
In what marks a complete shift from her debate strategy to this point, Warren consistently and aggressively attacked her rivals on topic after topic.
Her immediate jab at Bloomberg set the tone for the entire debate, and coming off disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire it was crystal clear that Warren viewed Wednesday’s debate as a make or break moment for her campaign.
On health care, the Massachusetts senator went after Buttigieg and Klobuchar, labeling their plans as either “Powerpoints,” or “two paragraphs.”
“Amy, I looked online at your plan, it's two paragraphs. Families are suffering. And they need a plan,” Warren said, eliciting incredulous responses from the former South Bend Mayor and Minnesota Senator.
Warren also dinged Sanders, describing his candidacy as a gamble on a “revolution,” that may not form a winning coalition in November.
In a sign that her performance may have resonated, at least with her supporters, Warren had the best fundraising hour of her entire campaign during the debate, including $425,000 raised in just half an hour at one point.
Warren needs a strong showing in the Nevada caucuses this weekend to reestablish her campaign among the top tier, and the next three days will show if Wednesday night helped her get back in the fray.
Experience clashes with vision, with scarce talk of Trump
Wednesday night’s debate offered a distillation of the candidate’s central arguments, experience versus vision, pragmatism versus idealism, and those contrasts, which have defined the race so far, were fuel for some of the night’s most impactful moments.
“You're staking your candidacy on your Washington experience,” Buttigieg said, taking aim at Klobuchar for forgetting the name of the Mexican President in a recent interview.
“Are you trying to say that I'm dumb or are you mocking me here, Pete?” Klobuchar responded, sparking a lengthy exchange between the two Midwesterners.
Sanders and Warren again pushed forward their progressive agendas, labeling their opponents as nothing more than a continuation of the “status quo,” despite their lofty rhetoric.
“If my plan is the status quo, why was it attacked by the insurance industry the moment it came out?” Buttigieg said in response to Sanders’ criticism of his healthcare plan.
Biden clung to his argument that his long record of delivering on progressive change, largely staying out of the night’s most contentious fights but chiding many on the stage for past blemishes on their records.
The continuous clashes however did not allow candidates much time to make their arguments as to why they are the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump, despite that being the top priority of Democratic voters.
“We have not been talking enough about Donald Trump!” Klobuchar lamented mid-debate.
“I can't think of a way to make it easier for Donald Trump to get reelected than listening to this conversation,” Bloomberg quipped during a discussion on economic policy.
Bloomberg makes an uneven debate debut
In his Democratic debate debut - the first time the former mayor has graced the debate stage in decades -Bloomberg found himself at times, ducking incoming fire as it came from every direction, and other times, standing tall as he sought to cast his candidacy as the one who can take on Donald Trump.
Among the many achilles heels he faced Wednesday night, Bloomberg struggled the most to meet the moment when confronted over both his past support for the controversial policy of “stop-and-frisk” policing and allegations that he directed crude and sexist comments towards female employees within the company that bares his name, and holding them still in confidentiality agreements.
“If I go back and look at my time in office, the one thing that I'm really worried about, embarrassed about, was how it turned out with Stop and Frisk,” he said during the first hour of the matchup, seeking to end the debate over the policy there.
On stage, as he addressed the accusations against him by former female employees, he appeared to get more rattled as he was pushed on the issue by his rivals, and ultimately and awkwardly said, “None of them accuse me of doing anything other than, maybe, they didn't like a joke I told,” to audible groans in the audience.
The agitation with Bloomberg’s presence on stage could be felt in both the other candidates’ pointed and frequent strikes against him, and as the candidates chimed in with more muted reactions to his responses.
After Bloomberg said he would release his tax returns “in a few weeks,” but added that he’s only been in the race for 10 weeks, Buttigieg interjected with a sharp attack, saying, “That's right, we have. Engaging with voters, humbling ourselves.”
But the billionaire philanthropist found his stride as he outlined his approach to tackling climate change, ticking through his extensive knowledge of the issue, before arguing for a more urgent timeline, saying, “No scientist thinks the numbers for 2050 anymore. They’re 2040, 2030."
He also showed his strength as he took on Sanders’ support for employee ownership in companies, arguing, “I can't think of a way that would make it easier for Donald Trump to get reelected than listening to this conversation. This is ridiculous. We're not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism and it just didn't work.”
Electability remains at the forefront of the Democrats’ arena
In between the punches, the Democratic contenders sought to pitch the electability of their respective campaigns, each offering a distinct argument that attempted to play on their strengths as a candidate.
“Democrats want to beat Donald Trump. But they are worried. They are worried about gambling on a narrow vision that doesn't address the fears of millions of Americans across this country who see real problems and want real change. They are worried about gambling on a revolution that won't bring along a majority of this country,” Warren argued.
“I have repeatedly said that we have to win big. The way we win big is winning states like Nevada. But also, winning the senate races in Arizona and in Colorado and beyond. And the reason we want to do that is to send Mitch McConnell packing,” said Klobuchar, emphasizing her Midwestern roots.
“I'm asking for your vote, because America is running out of time. And this is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump. If you look at the choice between a revolution or the status quo and you don't see where you fit in that picture, then join us,” Buttigieg offered.
The return to the electability pitch, despite the intense squabbling on stage, shows that these Democrats still clearly see Trump as their main targets, but still differ vastly in how that objective is achieved.
Even an attempt at unity fell back into the field’s division during the debate’s closing moments.
“The bottom is all of us are united in defeating the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country. That we agree on,” Sanders said in his closing statement before launching into a contrast on healthcare.
Ultimately the decision on which candidate has the best chance to defeat Donald Trump lies where it always has: the voters.
This report was featured in the Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.
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