(Bloomberg) -- The leading Democratic presidential candidates will debate Wednesday night in an atmosphere already loaded with acrimony, as several of the contenders directed pointed attacks at Michael Bloomberg in the hours before taking the stage.
In a prelude to the event at 9 p.m. at the Paris Las Vegas hotel, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg all took shots at the former New York mayor. Biden hit Bloomberg over his TV ads linking himself to Barack Obama and called him a Republican, while a Sanders’ spokeswoman raised questions about his health before walking it back. Buttigieg said Bloomberg “isn’t the answer for the toxicity” in U.S. politics.
Bloomberg is facing rivals eager to take him on in person for the first time on a debate stage, and many voters will see him live for the first time instead of in an ad on television and on social media. Those ads, paid for with Bloomberg’s personal fortune, have fueled a rise in polls that has rattled the Democratic nomination race.
Those polling numbers -- he was in a tight third place at 14% to Sanders’ 32% and Joe Biden’s 16% in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday -- qualified him to join five of his Democratic rivals for the ninth debate of the primary season, sponsored by NBC and the Nevada Independent.
But they’ve also brought Bloomberg far more scrutiny, and he has come under criticism for a week about past statements that don’t track with traditional Democratic positions on policing, women, race and health-care for the elderly. He has also taken hits for self-funding his campaign.
(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
The debate is coming at a pivotal moment for all the candidates on the stage.
Sanders and Buttigieg are neck and neck in the delegate count after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But Sanders is poised to pull ahead with the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, as Buttigieg has yet to gain traction with minority voters, who’ll play a much bigger role there and in South Carolina the following week.
Sanders, though, will face questions about whether his progressive policies are too extreme for a general-election campaign.
Both Biden and Warren are attempting to right struggling campaigns. Warren’s fortunes have sunk as Sanders’ rose, leaving her with a third-place finish in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire. Likewise, Biden has tumbled from his perch as front-runner as both Buttigieg and Bloomberg have made gains.
Biden has promised a first- or second-place finish in Nevada and wants to show his campaign is still viable after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Klobuchar is looking to repeat her performance in the last debate, which served as a springboard to a third-place finish in New Hampshire. But she’s lagged in fund-raising and, as a result, the ability to build a national campaign that will be needed to be competitive in the 14-state Super Tuesday round of primaries.
While the other candidates are battling in Nevada for the state’s caucuses on Saturday and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29, Bloomberg doesn’t appear on a ballot until 14 states and territories vote March 3 on Super Tuesday, including the big delegate prizes of California and Texas.
Although Bloomberg, 78, served three terms as New York’s mayor, he’s untested on a crowded debate stage, something that’s become routine for the other candidates.
The other billionaire in the race, former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, did not qualify under the new rules for the first time.
Bloomberg’s rivals began sharpening their knives before the debate day even began.
Elizabeth Warren, 70, tweeted her anticipation of debating Bloomberg on Tuesday.
“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,” she said.
In a CNN town hall Tuesday night, Amy Klobuchar, 59, said that she and the other Democratic candidates have been meeting with voters and answering questions from reporters throughout the primary.
“I don’t think you should just be able to buy your way to the presidency,” she said.
Biden’s campaign went after Bloomberg ads that have featured Obama, running through times when he had criticized the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street oversight bill and climate change regulations before showing footage of him praising Trump.
“Welcome to the debates, Mike,” Biden, 77, tweeted. “We have a lot to catch up on Barack Obama’s record.”
The Bloomberg campaign responded with a minute-long video of Biden praising Bloomberg in an old speech, accepting his “endorsement,” which spurred Biden to remark that he doesn’t “endorse Republicans.”
The Bloomberg campaign said this week it’s now a two-way Democratic race between Sanders and Bloomberg, and it encouraged other candidates lacking the resources to amass delegates to withdraw to prevent Sanders from running away with the nomination.
In a Feb. 17 “state of the race” memo first cited by Axios and confirmed by the campaign, Bloomberg officials said that Sanders is poised to leave Super Tuesday with a lead of more than 400 delegates. which they called “a likely insurmountable advantage.”
Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York City as a Republican, switched to independent in his second term and then registered as a Democrat in 2018.
Buttigieg, 38, referenced old remarks by Bloomberg that have surfaced recently.
“I think the American people are seeing each passing day more evidence that Mayor Bloomberg just isn’t the answer for the toxicity that we’re experiencing right now in our politics, certainly in Washington and in corporate culture,” he said on MSNBC on Wednesday.
The Bloomberg campaign also mixed it up with Sanders, 78, after Sanders’ national press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, said on CNN that questions over the Vermont senator’s health were a “smear,” and then went on to ask why “none of the same concern is being demonstrated for Michael Bloomberg, who is the same age as Bernie Sanders, who has suffered heart attacks in the past.”
Bloomberg underwent a coronary stent placement in 2000, and Gray later said she misspoke.
--With assistance from Jennifer Epstein and Tyler Pager.
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