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Democratic Candidates Were Less Than Welcoming To Michael Bloomberg

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There was a newcomer on the Democratic debate stage last night in Las Vegas. But for Michael Bloomberg, there was no warm welcome - far from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ELIZABETH WARREN: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Let's put forward somebody who actually lives and works in a middle-class neighborhood in an industrial Midwestern city. Let's put forward somebody who's actually a Democrat.

BERNIE SANDERS: Mr. Bloomberg had policies in New York City of stop-and-frisk, which went after African American and Latino people in an outrageous way. That is not a way you're going to grow voter turnout.

MARTIN: So that was Senator Elizabeth Warren, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Bernie Sanders. Did Bloomberg take all the heat last night? We're going to ask NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid. She was there at the debate in Las Vegas, and she joins us from Nevada. We've also got NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson with us. Hi, you two.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right. So this debate was distinctly more combative. We heard in that last clip there from Bernie Sanders attacking Bloomberg on his stop-and-frisk policy when he was mayor of New York. Asma, how did Bloomberg respond to that?

KHALID: Well, he suggested that he had a sort of natural moral awakening around this pretty controversial program that disproportionately targeted minorities when he was mayor in New York City. In reality, he only publicly denounced the program as he began to think of running for president. And the program itself, actually, was only stopped because of a court order. So it's a bit, to be blunt, of a revisionist history, you know, taking credit for the program being phased out when, in reality, it stopped because of a federal judge ruling the program was unconstitutional.

Elizabeth Warren, for one, the senator from Massachusetts, was not satisfied with his apology. It was just one of the many moments when she went on to lay into him.

MARTIN: Right. And she did so on a couple of different issues - in particular, allegations of sexual harassment. Others also went after Bloomberg for his tax returns. Mara, how'd he do on those attacks?

LIASSON: Well, I think his weakest moment was on the sexual harassment attacks, where he talked about these nondisclosure agreements that women who work for his companies have signed. He actually got booed from the audience where he talked about that.

Mike Bloomberg came off as a little bit rusty last night - kind of an underwhelming performance. His campaign appears to acknowledge that. They issued a statement last night that said he was just warming up tonight; we fully expect Mike will continue to build on tonight's performance when he appears in the next debate.

But Mike Bloomberg had a lot of things to do. Remember; this was the first time Democrats had a chance to see him as a candidate, not just a campaign commercial. You know, he had to look presidential, defend himself against the attacks, go after Sanders and try to introduce himself and describe his biography to people who don't really know him.

MARTIN: Right.

LIASSON: That was a lot to do, and he didn't do it all.

MARTIN: Let's get back to Elizabeth Warren, Asma. She has been slipping in the race, and she definitely went on offense last night. Let's listen to a clip. This is how she described Pete Buttigieg's health care plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WARREN: It's not a plan. It's a PowerPoint. And Amy's plan is even less. It's like a Post-it note - insert plan here.

MARTIN: So criticizing Amy Klobuchar's health care plan as well. What does that tell us about the overall condition of her presidential bid?

KHALID: I think it tells us two main points. I mean, one is that she needs to do well here in Nevada. Secondly, her campaign also needs to raise money. And they came out and said yesterday after the debate that it had its best fundraising day ever. And she needs that money, in part because she had been slipping both, we saw, you know, in the polls but also with her performances in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But, Rachel, I think there's a point worth remembering. I mean, after the previous debate in New Hampshire, there was a sense that she was not as present on the stage and that, you know, perhaps she didn't fare as well in New Hampshire on primary day because of that. She is a good debater. She was a high school debate champ. She is someone who is used to prosecuting people's record on banking, you know, from her years in the consumer finance world. That is where she is comfortable. We heard her use the word fight a lot. Fighter is sort of her demeanor that she's bid - she presents herself that way on the stump in her - on the campaign trail. When you talk to people who know her, that is a word that they often use.

But there was a sense that she needed a big debate night to keep her campaign afloat. The question that remains for me is, is this strong debate performance enough to help her win Nevada? Does it really stop Bernie Sanders' momentum? And if it doesn't, then I'm still unclear what the effect overall is for her.

MARTIN: Right. So speaking of Bernie Sanders, the primary has really created this big philosophical debate about whether capitalism has failed in this country and if socialism is the answer. I want to get into this with you, Mara, but let's listen to some tape here first. First, Michael Bloomberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: We're not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn't work.

MARTIN: And here's some of how Bernie Sanders responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: Let's talk about democratic socialism, not communism, Mr. Bloomberg. That's a cheap shot.

MARTIN: And then Bloomberg again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLOOMBERG: The best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses. What did I miss here?

MARTIN: Referring to Sanders there. So, Mara, what do you make of this?

LIASSON: Look; there is a big split in the party between the left - Bernie Sanders - and the center-left Democrats. And what's so interesting to me about the debate is that last night, the center-left candidates - Biden, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, to a certain extent Warren - formed a circular firing squad. They clearly do not think it is time yet to coalesce around one single alternative to Bernie Sanders. And as long as they don't think it's time to do that, Sanders has a pretty unimpeded path to the nomination.

And this is the thing - what one of the things that Bloomberg was trying to do was to say that this is what Donald Trump is going to do in the general election. He's not going to make a distinction between democratic socialism and communism. And polls have shown that when people are given a list of characteristics, if a candidate is gay, African American, female, you know, what would make you least likely to vote for them? Socialism is usually at the top of the list. And this is what Democratic elected officials in competitive states and districts worry about if Bernie Sanders is at the top of the ticket. They say, you know, it's going to be an anchor on their reelection bids. But Sanders is the front-runner. And last night, he was not seriously challenged.

MARTIN: Right. So, Asma, I guess off of that, I mean, did the debate get Democrats any closer to establishing who is the best to beat President Trump? We just heard Mara say there that Bernie Sanders is feeling pretty comfortable, and the others don't want to concede because - they don't want to coalesce around anyone else because that would be conceding defeat.

KHALID: I don't know that it substantially did change anything. I mean, if you look at who had sort of the strongest attack lines there, it was Senator Warren. But it's unclear to me that she will benefit from Michael Bloomberg's possible demise. I mean, you have Bernie Sanders and both Joe Biden, even Pete Buttigieg there waiting. So I don't know that we'll have any clearer sense. I think that we will actually need to just have more folks vote, and we may not get that until Super Tuesday.

MARTIN: All right. The race goes on. It's only February, as I've said a couple different times. NPR's Asma Khalid in Nevada and Mara Liasson. Thanks, you guys. We appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you.

KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.