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NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. — “Obliterated him.” “Eviscerated him.” “Wiped the floor with him.”
These were some of the (less graphic) ways that the supporters of Elizabeth Warren who swarmed her campaign’s North Las Vegas field office Thursday morning described what their candidate did to Michael Bloomberg during the previous night’s debate. And when Warren herself finally arrived and bounded to the front of the bare-bones room to address the crowd, she was eager to keep piling on the multibillionaire former New York mayor.
“For me it’s about accountability,” she began. “I have really had it with billionaires, regardless of party, who think that the rules don’t apply to them. I’ve had it with billionaires who think their money buys them something special, so they can call women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians’ and, when someone complains about it, throw a little money on it and put a gag in the woman’s mouth. That’s not right — and that’s not going to be our candidate for president.”
The question for Warren, however, is whether she still has a chance to be that candidate.
For months now — ever since plummeting from first place in the polls last fall — the Massachusetts senator has been searching for a comeback. But she didn’t get the boost she needed in Iowa, where she placed third, or in New Hampshire, where she finished fourth — a disappointing showing for a former frontrunner from a neighboring state that she blamed, in part, on her wan debate performance a few days earlier.
“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,” Warren admitted at the time.
It was a shortfall that Warren more than made up for Wednesday night. Every time Bloomberg tried to defend himself, she shivved him with a rhetorical razor blade. “This isn’t about how it turned out,” she said about the former mayor’s stop-and-frisk apology. “This is about what it was designed to do to begin with.” When the media mogul pushed back against allegations that his firm was rife with sexism by noting that he has, in fact, hired and promoted members of the opposite sex, Warren’s response was even more withering. “I hope you heard his defense: ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’” she said to laughter and applause. “That just doesn’t cut it.” And Warren didn’t spare her other rivals, either; often she lobbed so many haymakers in a single 75-second answer that the moderators struggled to give everyone an opportunity to respond.
Warren’s goal, she told reporters here Thursday, was to show that Bloomberg was “actually the riskiest candidate” Democrats could nominate and to give voters a “preview” of how she might eventually dismantle the other billionaire standing between her and the White House — thus making her own candidacy seem less risky in the process.
Will it work? It’s hard to say. But there are at least a few reasons to believe that Warren still has some fight left in her. For starters, she remains extremely popular with Democrats despite her overall polling slump. An Economist/YouGov survey released this week found her with the highest approval rating among Democrats (73 percent); more voters named her as their second choice in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll than any other candidate. That goodwill means she has a higher “ceiling” of support than her rivals; if the tide turns and other candidates begin to falter, she could gain ground fast.
Nevada is the place to start playing catch-up. Right now, the FiveThirtyEight polling average shows Warren in third place at 11.6 percent — more than 15 percent behind the odds-on favorite, Bernie Sanders, but only 3.5 percent behind Joe Biden. Given the challenges of polling Nevada, the strength of Warren’s Silver State organization and the complications of the caucus system, in which supporters of candidates who don’t initially clear 15 percent can “realign” with their second choice, it’s entirely plausible that Warren will beat expectations on Saturday and outpace Biden, whose campaign here is anemic. Conceivably, her blockbuster debate performance could make the difference: she raised more money Wednesday ($2.8 million) than any other candidate has raised on a debate day, and exit polling in New Hampshire showed that the debate there helped third-place finisher Amy Klobuchar leapfrog both Warren and Biden at the last minute.
Whatever happens next, the road ahead will be rocky for Warren. Sanders’s strength with Latino voters gives him an edge in delegate-rich California and Texas on Super Tuesday; Bloomberg still has unlimited funds. Early voting is also a challenge. In Nevada, an estimated 75,000 Democrats have already logged their preference, which nearly matches the total turnout from 2016, when there was no option to vote ahead of time. That could limit the impact of Warren’s debate performance. In California, Democrats have been voting since Feb. 3, with hundreds of thousands of ballots already in, and Texas began early voting on Tuesday.
Even so, the hope for Warren is that voters who flirted with Bloomberg may flee after his debate performance, and that voters previously drawn to Biden, Buttigieg or Klobuchar — black voters, college-educated white voters, women voters — will gravitate toward her now that they’ve seen how she can handle an “arrogant” New York billionaire on the debate stage. According to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll published last week, Warren performs better in one-on-one matchups against her Democratic rivals than any candidate except Sanders. She is also the only candidate who comes within the margin of error against the senator from Vermont, suggesting that she would have the best chance of beating him if and when only two candidates are left standing.
Warren hinted Thursday that that may be her plan. Speaking to reporters, she pointed out that 98 percent of the primary electorate had yet to cast a ballot; she also declined to disavow a new super-PAC that is unleashing a $1 million ad campaign on her behalf ahead of the caucuses, even though she has long criticized the practice.
“If all the candidates want to get rid of super-PACs, count me in,” she said. “I’ll lead the charge. But that’s how it has to be. It can’t be the case that a bunch of people keep them and only one or two don’t.”
All in all, Warren’s brass-tacks approach in Nevada suggests that she knows how much is at stake — and that it will take more to win the Democratic nomination than “having a plan” for every policy issue.
“The Democrats are getting down to the short strokes on how we’re going to pick a nominee,” she told the crowd at her North Las Vegas field office. “Now, we all know Mayor Bloomberg’s view on this: that everyone else should drop out and he’ll stay. He says Bernie can stay and he’ll take out Bernie. … Well, I’m not ready to go away.”
As the room erupted in applause, Warren waved her hand for silence. “Hey, Mayor Bloomberg,” she continued. “Before you put something out like that, give Mitch McConnell a call and see how telling that woman to sit down and shut up worked for him.”
A chant broke out — “Persist! Persist! Persist!” — and Warren smiled.
“All I can say,” she replied, “is that we’re just getting started.”
Nearby, a new volunteer named Andy Lane nodded his head. “The debate last night was amazing,” the 38-year-old salesman told Yahoo News. “It was the kind of fire and fury that I was hoping she would have had these last couple of months. But better late than never. I’m here to fight for her — even if it’s more of an uphill battle than I thought it would be.”
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