(Bloomberg) -- Michael Bloomberg is trying for a do-over in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, previewing that he’ll turn his focus to newly minted front-runner Bernie Sanders after a much-criticized debut at last week’s face-off.
Seven Democratic candidates will meet in Charleston, South Carolina, for a last encounter before that state’s primary on Saturday, and it would benefit Bloomberg if the rest of the field also sharpened their attacks against Sanders.
South Carolina’s primary is the last of the February preliminary rounds before the 14-state Super Tuesday contest on March 3, which includes huge delegate prizes of California and Texas, as well as the populous states of North Carolina and Virginia. Sanders is leading or tied for a top place in many of those states, and Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden are in a fight for runner-up.
The debate is sponsored by CBS and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and will be broadcast at 8 p.m Eastern time on Tuesday.
Last week, the former New York mayor was besieged by his rivals for the party’s nomination, who took him to task over his stop-and-frisk policing policies, allegations of a hostile work environment for women at his company and for self-funding his campaign at record levels.
(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
Focus on Sanders
The debate comes as Sanders has solidified his standing after a decisive victory in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, a win in the New Hampshire primary and securing the popular vote in Iowa. That newfound strength means that Bloomberg will likely not be alone in piling on Sanders.
Bloomberg plans to deflect attacks on him over to Sanders, focusing on what many party leaders fear -- that he would lose to President Donald Trump and hurt other Democrats on the ballot because he “appeals to a small base.”
“At the debate tomorrow night, and I think the campaign in general for folks in this race, needs to be about one candidate, and that’s Bernie Sanders,” Bloomberg states director Dan Kanninen told reporters on Monday.
The Bloomberg campaign also stepped up its attacks on Sanders’s record on gun control.
On Tuesday, five current and former Democratic elected officials who back Bloomberg held a news conference in South Carolina to criticize Sanders’s record on gun control, including voting five times against the Brady Bill to regulate handguns and supporting a NRA-backed law giving gun manufacturers legal immunity.
“The stakes in this election are enormous, we know this, and we need a candidate who’s fully vetted that can go on to defeat Donald Trump,” said Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Steve Benjamin, a national co-chairman of Bloomberg’s campaign. “We don’t believe that Senator Sanders has passed this test.”
Bloomberg campaign adviser Tim O’Brien previewed a possible line of attack when he raised on CNN on Tuesday that Sanders “has all of this loopy stuff in his background.”
He referred to a 1972 essay on gender roles Sanders wrote in the Vermont Freeman, an alternative weekly. In the essay, Sanders imagines a man fantasizing about “a woman on her knees, a woman tied up, a woman abused.”
When the issue of the article arose in Sanders’ first run for the White House in 2015, campaign spokesman Michael Briggs said that the essay was a “dumb attempt at dark satire in an alternative publication” that “in no way reflects his views or record on women.”
The 2020 Sanders campaign said it no comment on the Bloomberg campaign’s criticisms.
Biden, Others Muster Strength for Super Tuesday
Biden is desperate for a victory in the state he long appeared to be dominant in, and he may be in position to win. A Public Policy Polling survey released Monday showed him with a broad lead over Sanders, 36% to 21%.
But after embarrassing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, and a second-place finish in Nevada, even a South Carolina victory might not bolster Biden firmly enough to Super Tuesday just three days later.
The focus on Bloomberg allowed Sanders to emerge largely unscathed from last week’s debate.
But since then, Democrats have been openly skeptical that the self-described democratic socialist could beat Trump, especially after he praised Fidel Castro’s literacy programs in Cuba during a “60 Minutes” interview and said he didn’t specify how he would pay for his trillions in proposed cradle-to-grave government programs.
Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar need strong performances -- not so much to help them in South Carolina, where they lag in polls, but to propel them into Super Tuesday with enough strength to collect some delegates. Sanders took the lead Monday in the delegate count, with 45 to Buttigieg’s 25. Biden has 15, and the rest of the field each has fewer than 10.
There will be a second billionaire on the stage Tuesday. Tom Steyer, who had been pouring campaign resources into South Carolina, qualified for Tuesday’s debate.
Bloomberg’s campaign is at a critical juncture before Super Tuesday, the first time he appears on ballots. He had been rising in the polls by saturating the country with more than a half-billion dollars of advertising and had appeared mostly in controlled events before his introduction to many voters on the debate stage.
“Wasn’t my best night. Blame nobody but me. In the end, I get advice from people but it’s up to me to decide what to do. What I found that they were all yelling at each other,” Bloomberg said on MSNBC. “And I didn’t have a chance to really say what I wanted to say.”
The Sanders campaign previewed its response to Bloomberg’s gun-control line of attack, pointing out that Sanders has been endorsed by the co-founders of March for Our Lives in response to 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“The NRA never endorsed Bernie Sanders and he has never taken a dime of their money,” Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver said in a statement. “In fact, he lost his 1988 congressional race because he backed an assault weapons ban. But even after that, Sanders maintained his opposition to these weapons of war.”
Debate coaches who reviewed Bloomberg’s mayoral debates in New York said he appeared sharper and more aggressive in those forums than he did in last week’s presidential debate, saying he appeared unprepared for obvious questions and criticisms.
His campaign said he held mock sessions before that debate, but it declined to discuss how he may be preparing differently for Tuesday’s forum. Bloomberg hasn’t had a public event since last week and he postponed a scheduled CNN town hall to Wednesday from Monday to continue preparing.
“He’s got to figure out a way to get on offense,” said Republican strategist Brett O’Donnell, who helped prepare Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush for presidential debates. “He’s just going to keep getting attacked because he performed so poorly.”
Warren, who enjoyed a boost in fund-raising after leading the attacks on Bloomberg last week, has indicated she’s not letting up. At a rally Saturday in Seattle, Warren said Bloomberg is falsely portraying himself as the safest bet to beat Trump.
“He’s not safe; he’s just rich,” Warren said. “Let’s think about that: a billionaire who hides his taxes, has a bad history with women and defends racist policies. Let me just put it this way: We’re not substituting one arrogant billionaire for another in 2020.”
Bloomberg has taken a series of steps meant to move beyond his first debate, including offering to release women from three non-disclosure agreements his campaign has said are the only ones that involve Bloomberg directly.
Bloomberg’s aides say their candidate is rusty, pointing out he hasn’t been on a debate stage since he ran for re-election as New York mayor in 2009 -- and that his previous experience was with one-on-one debates, not multiple challengers.
“Obviously, this was Mike’s first debate in 10 years, and these other candidates on the stage have perfected the art of the attack,” Kanninen said. “We’re looking forward to a debate tomorrow with a Mike who comes out with some confidence having one under his belt.”
(Updates with Sanders declining comment in 17th paragraph)
--With assistance from Jennifer Epstein, Emma Kinery and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou.
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