- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Billionaire media mogul Michael R. Bloomberg will get his first major test as a Democratic presidential contender at Wednesday night’s debate in Las Vegas after weeks of relying on big-money ads and tightly scripted campaign appearances.

As his poll numbers have risen, Mr. Bloomberg has suffered a near-daily deluge of embarrassing leaks and exposes in the past week, including his support for tough policing that targeted minorities as New York’s mayor and his reported history of making demeaning comments toward women in his corporate empire.

A rival campaign jabbed the candidate Tuesday about owning a mansion in Bermuda, a notorious tax haven.

A video surfaced last week of Mr. Bloomberg appearing to disparage farmers: “I could teach anybody, even people in this room so no offense intended, to be a farmer. It’s a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn. You could learn that.” For information-era jobs, he said, “you have to have a lot more gray matter.”

In another video that popped up, he appeared to tie the end of “redlining,” a discriminatory home lending practice, to the 2008 financial collapse. He was seen in a separate video referring to “this enormous cohort of black and Latino males aged, let’s say 16 to 25, that don’t have jobs, don’t have any prospects, don’t know how to find jobs, don’t know what their skill sets are, don’t know how to behave in the workplace.”

BuzzFeed News on Tuesday posted a video from March 2019 in which Mr. Bloomberg ridiculed transgender issues as “about some guy wearing a dress and whether he, she or it can go to the locker room with their daughter. That’s not a winning formula.”

The videos and his improved polling numbers have put a huge target squarely on Mr. Bloomberg’s back at the debate.

“He will be attacked, and he can actually get past the attacks,” said Democratic Party strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “They have only one option, which is to reduce as quickly as [they] can Bloomberg’s ability to gain any more momentum. The question becomes how they do that.”

Mr. Bloomberg qualified for the debate just before the deadline thanks to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Tuesday that showed him with 19% support among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. He trailed only Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont at 31%.

That was his fourth qualifying poll, ensuring that he met the Democratic National Committee’s requirements ahead of the end-of-Tuesday deadline.

Mr. Bloomberg has declined donations and is relying instead on his estimated $60 billion net worth to fund hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ads, so he has been excluded from the debates since his late entry into the race in November.

The DNC dropped the fundraising requirement ahead of the Nevada debate to the consternation of other contenders.

Mr. Bloomberg is now in the unique position of being a top-polling candidate who will share a debate stage with his presidential rivals for the first time, after voters have started going to polls.

Although Mr. Bloomberg is a natural foil for Mr. Sanders, who has railed against the wealthy and corporations throughout his campaign, other candidates risk self-inflicted wounds if they go “super negative” on him, said Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins.

“People want to beat Trump,” said Mr. Hopkins, a former spokesman for the 2020 presidential campaign of former Rep. John Delaney, who dropped out of the race last month. “If Bloomberg looks like he’s the only one who can beat Trump and then you have candidates going nuclear on him and it looks overtly political, they will be punished.”

Mr. Bloomberg recently drew intense fire from President Trump, a fellow New York tycoon.

Mr. Trump nicknamed the 5-foot-7-inch-tall former mayor “Mini.”

Mr. Trump said Tuesday that it looked like Mr. Bloomberg was buying off supporters in what he called a “large-scale illegal campaign contribution.”

“Mini is illegally buying the Democrat Nomination,” the president said in a Twitter post. “They are taking it away from Bernie again. Mini Mike, Major Party Nominations are not for sale! Good luck in the debate tomorrow night and remember, no standing on boxes!”

The president has suggested for weeks that Mr. Bloomberg was trying to get a box to stand on when he takes the stage to make up for his diminutive stature.

The Bloomberg campaign has forcefully denied the accusation.

Mr. Bloomberg responded to the president: “Why do you want to run against Bernie so badly?”

Mr. Bloomberg’s team has been working overtime to try to quell some of the incoming fire. They say the knives are coming out because the former mayor is ascending so quickly in the polls.

He said he regrets “bawdy” comments he may have made about women, an attempt to quell questions about workplace behavior at his financial services firm and over several nondisclosure agreements former female employees have signed.

“Mike has never tolerated discrimination or harassment at his company,” campaign spokesman Jason Schechter said on CNN. “There are thousands and thousands of people who have worked for him over the years who will tell you that.”

Mr. Bloomberg also apologized for overseeing the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy during his three terms as mayor, and his team said the farmer comments were taken out of context.

Mr. Sanders, a front-runner for the nomination, has gone after Mr. Bloomberg over stop-and-frisk and for his past comments opposing an increase of the minimum wage.

“Mr. Bloomberg, like anybody else, has a right to run for president. He does not have a right to buy the presidency,” the senator from Vermont said at a rally this week.

On Tuesday, Sanders speechwriter David Sirota pointed out that a press release on Mr. Bloomberg’s website last year said he is a “part-time Bermuda resident” “and it quotes Bloomberg promoting business opportunities in Bermuda, which is a notorious tax haven.”

Mr. Bloomberg’s team hit back by calling out Mr. Sanders’ campaign surrogates, including Mr. Sirota, for what they described as Trump-like bullying online.

“At this point, the primary is Bernie’s to lose and ours to win. Bernie knows this. Trump knows this. That’s why they are united in the campaign against Mike,” said Bloomberg campaign manager Kevin Sheekey.

Mr. Sanders isn’t the only candidate with eyes on the former mayor. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden has taken swipes at him, too.

“By the way, Mayor Bloomberg says the health care bill was a disaster, it’s a lousy bill. But he has $60 billion to explain that,” Mr. Biden said at a Denver fundraiser.

Mr. Biden had been the front-runner in national polling for much of 2019 but recently slipped behind Mr. Sanders. He finished a dismal fifth place in New Hampshire and a distant fourth place in Iowa.

Under the gun to put up a good showing in Nevada caucuses on Saturday, Mr. Biden said he is confident of a first- or second-place finish.

Polling showed Mr. Sanders as the front-runner in Nevada and Mr. Biden jockeying with candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg for the runner-up position.

Rep. Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat and Biden supporter, said Mr. Bloomberg has run “positive Madison Avenue ads” but has not yet “passed the test.”

“The vice president’s doing great here in Nevada,” she said on CNN. “We didn’t expect to win in Iowa or New Hampshire — those aren’t our constituencies.”

Despite placing first in Iowa and a close second in New Hampshire, Mr. Buttigieg is under the gun in Nevada to prove he can perform in states with more sizable minority populations.

After briefly sitting atop national polling last year, Ms. Warren is fighting for her political survival coming off a fourth-place finish in New Hampshire despite hailing from neighboring Massachusetts.

“It’s a shame Mike Bloomberg can buy his way into the debate,” Ms. Warren said in a Twitter post. “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.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota got a boost from her surprise third-place finish in New Hampshire, but, like Mr. Buttigieg, she faces questions over how well she can do with Hispanic and black voters.

Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer has polled relatively strongly in South Carolina but needs to demonstrate that he can hang with the big guns after finishing outside the top five in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Steyer campaign released a poll Tuesday that showed Mr. Sanders in the lead in Nevada with 24% support, followed by Mr. Biden at 19%, Mr. Steyer at 18%, Mr. Buttigieg at 13%, Ms. Warren at 10% and Ms. Klobuchar at 7%.

Though it may be tempting to rehash Mr. Bloomberg’s old comments, Mr. Hopkins said, he hopes the candidates will direct most of their fire at Mr. Sanders, who could become an unstoppable force with strong performances in Nevada and South Carolina heading into Super Tuesday on March 3, when voters in 14 states go to the polls.

“If Sanders starts to extend his lead, then there is no conversation about a contested convention,” he said. “There will be no opportunity for anyone else to get the nomination.”

Asked by a reporter whether he had advice for Mr. Bloomberg for the Democratic debate, Mr. Trump said, “He doesn’t need that kind of advice.

“It just seems unfair what’s happening to Bernie Sanders. Whoever [the nominee] is, I’ll be very happy. But it seems that Bernie Sanders and that whole section of the … Democrat Party … it seems that they’re being taken advantage of like they were four years ago,” the president said.

⦁ Seth McLaughlin and Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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