LAS VEGAS — Phew. That was a debate.
Here are six takeaways from the most gloves-off, knives-out Democratic debate so far in the 2020 presidential race.
Things got ugly in Vegas, and fast.
After eight debates that had sparks of conflict but were relatively cordial, Wednesday night brought two hours of nonstop political battle.
Every candidate got attacked. Senator Elizabeth Warren sometimes attacked almost everyone in a single breath. Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg found himself facing incoming fire within the debate’s first seconds and looked very much like the out-of-practice politician he was before his tardy entry to the presidential campaign in November.
The night revealed the desperation of everyone onstage who wasn’t Senator Bernie Sanders or Mr. Bloomberg, whose hundreds of millions of dollars in TV advertising threaten to drown most of his rivals come Super Tuesday.
It portends a new, nastier phase of the campaign as the candidates hit the campaign trail before 16 states and territories hold Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses on March 3. And it raises the question of how much uglier the candidates might be when they gather again for the next debate on Tuesday night in Charleston, S.C.
Bloomberg came close to going bust.
It was Mr. Bloomberg’s debut on the presidential debate stage. He did not make a good first impression.
After saturating the airwaves with unprecedented levels of advertising for almost three months, Mr. Bloomberg was on the defensive from the opening gun. Mr. Sanders hit him for his support of stop-and-frisk police tactics. Ms. Warren eviscerated him as a sexist (“a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians”) who had “muzzled” women with nondisclosure agreements. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said the former mayor didn’t manage New York City very well.
It didn’t get better from there.
Mr. Bloomberg’s shakiest stretch came when Ms. Warren pressed him over his nondisclosure agreements with women who worked for his company. When she said, “I hope you heard what his defense was: I’ve been nice to some women,” Mr. Bloomberg visibly rolled his eyes in annoyance.
Mr. Bloomberg steadfastly refused to budge, dismissing the private complaints with a one-liner that did not land.
“Maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he said.
Later, he awkwardly described the agreements — with unknown monetary payments — as being “made consensually.”
He sounded uncomfortable both defending his stop-and-frisk record and his very recent change of heart. He accused Mr. Sanders — who is leading in the polls — of “communism,” which the Vermont senator slapped away as a “cheap shot.” As they exited the stage, Mr. Biden said on MSNBC, he turned to Mr. Bloomberg and said, “Welcome to the party, man.”
Warren had a very good night.
After the New Hampshire debate early this month, Ms. Warren said she had her hand up a lot but didn’t get called on much. This time, she not only spoke more than any of her rivals, but she also often set the terms of the debate.
It was the kind of aggressive performance that allies and even some of her campaign advisers had been hoping for, even if it marked a sharp shift from her recent strategy of appearing as an above-the-fray candidate who could unite Democrats.
She had one-liners. And twice she plowed through the weaknesses of so many of her opponents in a single answer that it left moderators struggling to even give everyone a chance to respond. Perhaps most notably, she forcefully addressed health care and her “Medicare for all” plan, which has been a liability for months.
She said that former Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s health care plan was “not a plan, it’s a PowerPoint” and that Senator Amy Klobuchar’s was more “like a Post-it note.” She said even advisers to Mr. Sanders admitted his package “probably won’t happen anyway.”
How the performance will play out among voters in the coming days and weeks remains to be seen. Ms. Warren had stagnated in recent weeks. But on Wednesday night she looked like a fighter determined to go the distance, and her campaign wasted no time boasting of a huge financial haul — $1 million raised during the debate itself, and $2.8 million raised throughout the day — as a potential sign of a revival.
Sanders, the polling leader, is unscathed once again.
Mr. Sanders won the most votes in the first two states. He is leading in Nevada polls. He is leading in national polls. He has been raising more than all his rivals. But he was still not the central focus of his rivals at the debate.
The arrival of Mr. Bloomberg and his large fortune has threatened the path forward for all the other anti-Sanders candidates and served as something of a distraction. And so they focused more on the former mayor than the surging senator who is building momentum by the day, and who could add even more if he carries the caucuses here on Saturday.
Some rivals hit him: Ms. Warren on his health plan not being realistic; Mr. Buttigieg on the toxicity of some Sanders supporters online; Mr. Bloomberg on his support of socialism and predicting that Mr. Sanders would lose to President Trump.
But there was no singular moment that would seem to upend his current positive trajectory, both in Nevada and nationally. And even if Mr. Sanders did not deliver his most forceful performance, that might be enough.
Biden seemed like an afterthought for his rivals.
It was not so long ago that Mr. Biden was widely assumed to be the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Wednesday’s debate showed that no one else in the race thinks that’s the case now.
Standing in the center of the stage, Mr. Biden spent the night watching everyone else challenging and criticizing one another while avoiding much mention of him. Only a couple of spare remarks from Ms. Warren addressed Mr. Biden’s political record. Everyone else clearly thought their time was better spent going after the others.
It marks quite the comedown for Mr. Biden, the race’s polling leader for the better part of the last year. But after finishing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire — two early-state disasters — Mr. Biden is on the ropes. He’s struggling to raise money, his super PAC is gasping for air and Mr. Bloomberg is spending heavily to try to fill the center-left vacuum.
Mr. Biden’s team said this week that he must finish in the top two in Nevada and then win South Carolina to be a contender on Super Tuesday. This debate suggests his rivals don’t think he’ll meet those marks.
Klobuchar and Buttigieg may take each other down.
Forgive us for wondering on Wednesday night if Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Buttigieg wanted to physically harm each other onstage at times.
While Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders loathe the idea of a self-funding billionaire nominee like Mr. Bloomberg, no two presidential candidates loathe each other with the fire of Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Buttigieg.
The dynamic was on full display at the debate: The two dismissed each other’s experience as irrelevant to governing, with Ms. Klobuchar saying Mr. Buttigieg hasn’t been “in the arena.” Mr. Buttigieg all but called Ms. Klobuchar incompetent for forgetting the name of the president of Mexico.
When Mr. Buttigieg leveled an attack on Ms. Klobuchar’s Senate voting record as insufficiently progressive, she glared at him and shot back a line that encapsulates how she — and others in the field — feel about the 38-year-old former mayor: “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.”
The Buttigieg-Klobuchar conflict is consequential. With Mr. Bloomberg now near the top of polling in key Super Tuesday states, the other moderates cannot hope to both top the 15 percent threshold to win enough delegates to keep their campaigns viable. Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Klobuchar appear to know a lesson from the Harry Potter children’s book series: One must die for the other to survive.