Democrats set to clash at Las Vegas debate with Bloomberg in their sights

Kusum Tewari

The Democrats storming Nevada in the lead up to Saturday’s caucuses are set to first face off in Wednesday night’s debate, a matchup in a more diverse early state than the first two, with a new wrinkle in the form of billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who will take the stage for the first time.

The debate, which will be hosted by NBC, MSNBC and the Nevada Independent in the state’s epicenter of Las Vegas, brings the presidential contenders in front a different audience that far more reflects the makeup of the Democratic Party and the country as a whole. Nevada is nearly 30% Latino, over 10% black and encompasses one of the nation’s fastest-growing Asian-American and Pacific Islander populations.

But once again absent from the Democratic debate stage, and from the primary’s top tier, is a candidate of color — a somewhat unexpected reality for a party that once touted its most diverse field, even with a still fluid race. Only six candidates will square off in the matchup, which takes place only three days ahead of the Nevada caucuses.

The third nominating contest of the cycle is shaping up to be even more crucial after the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire failed to anoint a front-runner and left two other top campaigns faltering.

The Democratic National Committee announced the qualified candidates for the ninth Democratic debate Wednesday, including:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
  • Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
  • Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
  • Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
  • For the contenders on stage who are not Sanders, the victor out of New Hampshire, or Buttigieg, the overall delegate leader so far, the debate in the Battle Born state brings an opportunity to deliver a final pitch to woo caucus-goers, who they hope will reset the Democratic primary race in the “first in the west” contest.

    But since the New Hampshire primary earlier this month, most of the presidential hopefuls have set their sights squarely on targeting Bloomberg – for his wealth and self-funded campaign, his complicated record on race, particularly his since-retracted support for “stop-and-frisk,” and his blurred ideological allegiance – despite the fact that he is not competing in the first four early states.

    Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver told CNN Tuesday that if the senator were to become the nominee, he wouldn’t accept a dime from Bloomberg, part of his “no billionaire donors” policy. Earlier in the week, Sanders chastised the multibillionaire, telling thousands of supporters in Richmond, Calif., “Now Mr. Bloomberg, like anybody else, has a right to run for president. He does not have a right to buy the presidency.”

    Invoking a similar refrain, Warren, who has also cultivated a brand of antagonizing billionaires, said of Bloomberg clinching a podium on the day of the deadline, “It’s a shame Mike Bloomberg can buy his way into the debate. But at least now primary voters curious about how each candidate will take on Donald Trump can get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire.”

    Biden, too, unleashed on the former mayor, telling MSNBC on Monday, “He can buy every ad he wants, but he wants but he can’t, in fact, wipe away his record including stop-and-frisk and policy assertions and the like. So, I’m looking forward to debating Michael Bloomberg.” Over the weekend, Klobuchar conceded that she might not be able to go toe-to-toe with Bloomberg’s deep pockets, but she also signaled an eagerness to confront him: “I think he should be on the debate stage, because I can’t beat him on the airwaves. But I can beat him on the debate stage.”

    Bloomberg’s last-minute entry has long roiled the rest of the field, but the sharpened attacks in recent days reflect the anxiety over his steady rise in the Democratic primary — even as he spends his time carving out his own parallel race to the Democratic convention. He plans to make a formal entrance on the ballot on Super Tuesday, the single-biggest day of voting in the presidential primary. But on Wednesday, Bloomberg will have to come out from behind the curtain and face the competitors keen to take him on.

    Beyond the Bloomberg factor, for both Biden and Warren, the debate will be a critical turn for each of their quests to overcome Sanders’ massive army of supporters and Buttigieg’s delegate edge.

    Warren spent the weekend on the trail battling a cold, with barely any voice, but nonetheless, she continued from campaign stop to campaign stop to make her case before caucusgoers.

    “So, people told me when they heard me, early this morning, they said ‘you gotta cancel your day in Reno,'” she told supporters. “And I said, “Reno’s been left out of way too many conversations for way too long. That’s not gonna happen.”

    For his part, Biden has been leaning into his advantage among minority voters, who comprise of the bedrock of his support, spending the weekend arguing that “99% of the African American vote hasn’t spoken yet and 99% of Latino vote hasn’t spoken yet.”

    “There can be no Democratic nominee, none without the voice of Latinos and African American voters being heard and heard loudly,” he said in Las Vegas on Sunday.

    The debate will also be a key opportunity for Buttigieg, who despite his position at the top of the delegate race, has long struggled to make inroads with some of the most diverse blocs within the Democratic Party.

    With minorities making up a large portion of the electorate in the last two early states before March 3rd’s 15 contests, he is set to likely face a tougher road ahead. But on Tuesday, brushing off any concerns about his two rivals at the top of national polls, Sanders and Bloomberg, Buttigieg signaled a readiness to get on stage.

    “I don’t think most Democratic voters would be happy if their only choices were between somebody saying you only fit in if you’re for a revolution, or somebody who is trying to buy the election from a position of being a billionaire,” he said in an interview with ABC News’ Eva Pilgrim in Las Vegas. “You have to actually be willing to look voters in the eye to take questions. At some point you’ve got to be ready to be challenged. That’s what we have been doing on the campaign trail for the last year.”

    This report was featured in the Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

    “Start Here” offers a straightforward look at the day’s top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.

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