Bloomberg’s first debate. How will he fare?
Mr. Bloomberg hasn’t been a candidate for office in more than a decade. His last election and his last time on the debate stage were in 2009.
That long absence leaves a lot of rough edges to smooth out ahead of Wednesday night, which will probably be the first time the majority of viewers hear him speak at length. And that introduction — right foot or wrong foot — could say a lot about whether his recent rise in the polls will be sustainable.
Since he left office as mayor of New York on New Year’s Day 2014, he has led a relatively unchallenged existence. He runs his private data and information company, Bloomberg L.P., largely as he sees fit. If he agrees to an interview, he picks the outlet himself, sticking to a group of high-profile, high-prestige New York-based journalists like Steve Croft of “60 Minutes.”
Aides involved in his debate prep have worried that he isn’t prepared to handle the kind of sustained criticism and questioning about his record he will face onstage. And if he can’t impress the many Americans who know little about him other than that he is a billionaire former mayor of the nation’s largest city, his surge may prove ephemeral.
Sanders has gained in post-New Hampshire polling.
Mr. Sanders has improved his standing in national polls since his victory in the New Hampshire primary, raising the possibility that he could amass a commanding or even insurmountable delegate lead on Super Tuesday in two weeks.
Mr. Sanders held 30 percent of the vote, nearly double his nearest rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, in an average of three post-New Hampshire live-interview national surveys sponsored by ABC/Washington Post, NBC/WSJ and NPR/PBS/Marist College. The polls also had good news for President Trump, whose approval ratings have hit the highest point since the early days of his term.
The results suggest that Iowa and New Hampshire not only helped Mr. Sanders, but also left his moderate opposition in disarray heading into tonight’s debate, with five candidates between 8 percent and 16 percent of the vote.
Many of Mr. Sanders’s opponents have an incentive to attack one another, rather than the Vermont senator. And Mr. Bloomberg has been a focal point of attack this week, leaving Mr. Sanders relatively unscathed.
Will Sanders play offense or defense or neither?
LAS VEGAS — There are two big questions for Mr. Sanders when he takes the debate stage: Will he be a target for attack? And will he attack Mr. Bloomberg?
Rivals challenged Mr. Sanders at times in the last debate, before the New Hampshire primary, but he emerged relatively unscathed. Now he is a front-runner, and front-runners have typically come under steady criticism in debates. After Mr. Sanders’s tie in Iowa and victory in New Hampshire, will any of his opponents finally go after him in a meaningful way?
At the same time, the arrival of Mr. Bloomberg onstage gives Mr. Sanders a prime opportunity to attack a billionaire candidate who represents much of what the Vermont senator despises. Will he play offense?
Mr. Sanders already appears primed for a strong performance in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday. For Sanders-watchers, the most interesting aspect of tonight’s debate is probably whether a man who rarely changes his message will do just that, and what effect it may have.
Ms. Warren has largely avoided attacking opponents, in debates and on the trail. As she seeks to jolt her stalled candidacy after a disappointing finish in New Hampshire, however, several signs point to this debate in Nevada as the moment that Ms. Warren will go on a sustained offensive.
The clearest one was on Tuesday when Ms. Warren called Mr. Bloomberg an “egomaniac” on Twitter and challenged her opponents to hold his feet to the fire. In another Twitter post, Ms. Warren said Mr. Bloomberg “approved and oversaw a program that surveilled and tracked Muslim communities in mosques, restaurants, and even college campuses — leaving permanent damage.”
If Ms. Warren carries out these attacks onstage, it will most likely provide her supporters with the moment they have been waiting for in recent months.
After the last debate in New Hampshire, when Ms. Warren did not interject into the conversation like many of her opponents did, some supporters expressed exasperation with an approach that could be relentlessly unflinching. Even Ms. Warren said after the debate that she wished she had jumped in more.
“I just didn’t say enough, didn’t fight hard enough, didn’t tell you how bad I want this and how good we could make it if we just come together,” she said.
She finished in fourth place days later in the New Hampshire primary.
Buttigieg may face his toughest task yet.
For months, Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign was built around the idea that strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire would make him the inheritor of the Democratic Party’s Obama coalition.
But that calculation didn’t count on a billionaire candidate, Mr. Bloomberg, targeting the Super Tuesday states in March and spending many times more on television advertising than Mr. Buttigieg could ever hope to raise from donors excited about his post-Iowa momentum.
While Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren have sounded far more aggrieved about Mr. Bloomberg’s recent polling rise and his past statements about housing discrimination and stop-and-frisk police tactics, Mr. Bloomberg presents a far graver threat to Mr. Buttigieg than he does to their more liberal rivals.
Mr. Bloomberg can also deflect Mr. Buttigieg’s core argument: that it will take a mayor from outside Washington to galvanize an American majority to defeat President Trump. Mr. Bloomberg would fit that profile, too.
Mr. Buttigieg, who has struggled to appeal to black voters, may have difficulty attacking Mr. Bloomberg on his past statements about housing and policing, given his own difficulties on those fronts in South Bend, Ind.
Time and again, Mr. Buttigieg has proved himself to be a highly competent debater, able to land precise blows on his opponents while deflecting and counterattacking their shots at him. Trying to disqualify Mr. Bloomberg in the eyes of voters in Super Tuesday states, where some early voting is already underway, may be his most difficult task yet.
Can Biden break out?
A strong debate performance close to an Election Day can make a meaningful difference for a campaign’s momentum — just ask Ms. Klobuchar, who received a post-debate surge in support right before the New Hampshire primary, and landed a surprise third-place finish there.
Is there anything he can do to stand out onstage Wednesday night?
He has previewed a range of arguments against his opponents, from alluding to Mr. Sanders’s record on gun control, to swiping at Mr. Bloomberg’s background as a former Republican. But Mr. Biden is often hesitant to draw sharp contrasts with rivals onstage when they are shoulder-to-shoulder. And throughout the campaign, he has had a number of disastrous debate moments — never mind achieving the kind of race-changing, breakout performance he needs now, in a state where his campaign believes he must finish in at least second place.
Mr. Biden is at his best, and his most comfortable, when engaging one-on-one with voters. Can he translate that appeal onstage in a memorable — and effective — way?
Klobuchar will need to sustain ‘Klomentum.’
Perhaps no remaining candidate has benefited as significantly from a debate as Ms. Klobuchar, who vaulted to a third-place finish in New Hampshire with the help of a well-received debate performance just days before polls closed.
Tonight, she’ll need another strong outing. Though she’s experienced a surge of support thanks to the New Hampshire result — the so-called Klomentum has lead to $12 million in fund-raising since the last debate and she’s rapidly expanding her campaign team in key states — Ms. Klobuchar is still far from a household name, and doesn’t boast anything close to the sizable war chests of Mr. Sanders or Mr. Buttigieg.
Just like she used her primary night speech in New Hampshire to try to introduce herself to a wide cable news audience, Ms. Klobuchar will use the debate to make herself more familiar to voters nationwide. She deftly worked her way into many of the debate exchanges in New Hampshire and ranked fourth in candidates who spoke the most.
At every recent debate, Ms. Klobuchar has balanced calls for restoring empathy and dignity with some aggressive attacks on her rivals, namely Mr. Buttigieg. But as she has campaigned around Nevada this week, Ms. Klobuchar has telegraphed a likely new target of her prosecutorial takedowns: Mr. Bloomberg.
Of course, Ms. Klobuchar, who has been trying to appeal to moderates, independents and defecting Republicans, sees the centrist Mr. Bloomberg as a threat to her post-New Hampshire momentum.
Saying that a debate stage is the only place where she can be on equal footing with the billionaire, Ms. Klobuchar has been using what has become a favorite attack line: “I don’t think people look at the guy in the White House and think we need someone richer.”
Nate Cohn contributed reporting.