Mike Bloomberg finally steps out at Nevada debate

By AP Reporters

Multi-billionaire Mike Bloomberg will tackle the greatest test of his presidential campaign when he faces five Democratic rivals in a Las Vegas debate that could fundamentally change the direction of the party’s election nomination fight.

The debate debut for the former mayor of New York is poised to offer fresh insight into the sustainability of his unconventional campaign strategy — bypassing early voting states such as Nevada and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to spread his message on the airwaves.

Wednesday night’s debate comes at a pivotal point in the campaign as moderate voters are struggling to unify, with some increasingly looking to Mr Bloomberg to become the clear alternative to progressive Bernie Sanders.

All participants expect a hostile reception for Mr Bloomberg, who formally registered as a Democrat in 2018 and has faced relatively little national scrutiny so far in his surprisingly swift rise from a non-partisan major donor to a top-tier presidential contender.

“He is going to have a giant target on his back from all sides,” said Democratic strategist Brian Brokaw.

“It’ll either all come together brilliantly or could fall apart very quickly. The stakes are just incredibly high for him.”

They are for others as well, just days before Nevada’s next-up presidential caucuses, the third contest in the Democrats’ chaotic 2020 primary season.

Voters will not formally judge Mr Bloomberg’s performance until next month.

He is not technically competing in Nevada’s Saturday caucuses or any of the four primary contests scheduled for this month, preferring to invest his time and resources in the delegate-rich states that begin voting in March.

In the modern era, such a strategy has never worked. Yet it’s never been attempted by someone as wealthy as Mr Bloomberg, who has already invested more than $400 million into a national advertising campaign and hired more than 2,000 campaign staffers.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign event at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas on Tuesday (Patrick Semansky/AP)

After more than a year of campaigning there is little clarity in the search for a nominee to run against President Donald Trump in November.

Establishment favourite Joe Biden, a former two-term vice president, is fighting to breathe life into his flailing campaign, which enters the night at the bottom of a moderate muddle with former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Mr Sanders, a Vermont senator, has emerged as the progressive wing’s clear preference after two contests as Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren struggles to boost her campaign.

Some Democrats fear conditions are ripe for a bare-knuckle brawl on national television that could carve new scars into a divided party.

Mr Bloomberg’s rivals have already indicated they will target his explosive comments on race and gender in addition to their charge that he’s using a fortune earned from a career on Wall Street to buy the presidency.

Mr Bloomberg’s rise in national polls has been fuelled almost exclusively by an unprecedented national advertising campaign, carefully controlled campaign events, and a sprawling national organisation that has likely already cost him more than half a billion dollars.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg (Matt York/AP)

Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the Sanders-allied Justice Democrats, called Wednesday Mr Bloomberg’s first “public moment of accountability.”

“It’s going to be a chance to finally bring scrutiny to Bloomberg’s record as a Republican plutocrat,” she said.

Despite the challenges, senior adviser Tim O’Brien signalled Mr Bloomberg welcomed a fight against Mr Sanders, perceived as the race’s clear front-runner, with questions on Mr Sanders’ personal wealth, record on criminal justice and gun control.

The Vermont senator railed against Bloomberg and “a system that allows billionaires to buy elections” while campaigning in Nevada on the eve of the debate.

“Here is the message: Anyone here worth $60 billion, you can run for president, and you can buy the airwaves,” Mr Sanders said.

“My friends, that is called oligarchy, not democracy.”

While the same age and race, Mr Bloomberg and Mr Sanders are ideological opposites.

Mr Bloomberg is one of the world’s richest men, having generated a net worth estimated at $60 billion (£46 billion) after a career on Wall Street.

He has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to combat climate change and gun violence and promote immigration reform in recent years, yet he takes a decidedly pragmatic approach that celebrates incremental improvement backed by data.

Mr Sanders has a net worth estimated at $2.5 million (£1.9 million) thanks to book sales and the value of his home.

But he has spent a lifetime in politics as an uncompromising democratic socialist demanding a political revolution to transform the nation’s politics and economy.

He measures his success largely by the impact he’s had on the public debate, which has warmed to his calls for a $15 minimum wage, universal health care and sweeping action on climate change.