Bloomberg debate debacle spurs Democratic hand-wringing

Democrats are having second thoughts about Mike Bloomberg after he fell flat in his debate stage debut.

Before Wednesday night’s performance — which Democrats across the board labeled “terrible” and “pathetic” — many in the party were hopeful the former New York City mayor would emerge as a strong competitor to front-runner Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers Sanders still sees 'narrow path' to Democratic presidential nomination Tenants call on lawmakers to pass rent freezes MORE (I-Vt.), who continues to gain momentum.

But Bloomberg’s debate implosion left a lot to be desired.

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"I don't think I've ever seen someone look worse in a debate," said one Democratic strategist who is a veteran of presidential campaigns. "Sometimes it seemed like he wasn't on stage, sometimes he seemed out of touch, sometimes he seemed like he hadn't prepped. It was a combination of bad.”

Democratic strategist Christy Setzer said it “just goes to show that having unlimited money and the most talented team in the world doesn’t matter if you refuse to do basic preparation.”

“That’s how it read to me: that Bloomberg believed he was above preparation even on the most obvious lines of attack. No wonder best-student-in-class [Sen.] Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers Biden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much Biden faces pesky enthusiasm challenge despite big primary numbers MORE [D-Mass.] utterly crushed him,” Setzer added.

During the debate, Warren pummeled Bloomberg, painting him as a misogynist and an out-of-touch billionaire.

“Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of during his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist policies like redlining stop and frisk,” the Massachusetts senator said during the debate. “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”

Setzer added that Warren’s “demolishment of Bloomberg was so complete, we may have set ourselves up for the nightmare scenario: Sanders grabs Democratic nomination and an embarrassed, bitter Bloomberg instead runs third party.”

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Some Democrats said Bloomberg's performance may present another opportunity for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 6 points in national poll The Memo: Political world grapples with long coronavirus shutdown The Hill's Campaign Report: North Carolina emerges as key battleground for Senate control MORE, who struggled in the Iowa and New Hampshire contests.

“It definitely presents a good opportunity for Biden to say, ‘Told you so,’” the Democratic strategist said. 

Democratic strategist Lynda Tran said Biden “had the strongest debate performance of the primary cycle by a mile. And he showed his supporters the fighting Joe they have been standing with for his many years of public service.”

But she also argued that the criticisms Bloomberg faces now “will have zero impact on the resources available to him to remain on the airwaves and and competitive heading into Super Tuesday” on March 3.

Philippe Reines, who served as a longtime senior aide to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much GOP challenger seizes on outrage against Massie Juan Williams: Mueller, one year on MORE, said it would be worse for Bloomberg if he were competing in Nevada and South Carolina — two states that hold their nominating contests over the next 10 days.

"Super Tuesday, the first time people can vote for him, is two weeks away. That’s two months in political dog years,” Reines said. "Aside from another debate next week, and aside from his opponents stumbling, as I'm sure some will, he has his paid media to help rebound, and he has other opportunities of his making. So, he's lucky today isn't Super Thursday."

At a campaign event in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Bloomberg didn’t talk much about his own performance. Instead, he argued that the evening benefited President TrumpDonald John TrumpIllinois governor says state has gotten 10 percent of medical equipments it's requested Biden leads Trump by 6 points in national poll Tesla offers ventilators free of cost to hospitals, Musk says MORE

“Look, the real winner in the debate last night was Donald Trump, because I worry that we may be on the way to nominating somebody who cannot win in November,” he said. “If we choose a candidate who appeals to a small base, like Sen. Sanders, it will be a fatal error.”

Bloomberg’s aides on Thursday warned that Sanders would cement his place as the front-runner and move closer to amassing the delegates needed to win the nomination if the field remained divided among various candidates. 

“The fact is if the state of this race remains status quo … Bernie is likely to open up a delegate lead that seems nearly impossible to overcome,” Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg’s campaign manager, said in a memo. “I don’t think many people understand the dire circumstances here.” 

At the same time, aides to Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegReuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he'll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren Buttigieg guest-hosts for Jimmy Kimmel: 'I've got nothing else going on' MORE, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and the leading moderate in the race, called on Bloomberg to drop out.

“If Bloomberg remains in the race despite showing he cannot offer a viable alternative to Bernie Sanders, he will propel Sanders to a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead siphoning votes away from Pete,” a memo circulated by his campaign Thursday said.

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Bloomberg allies say their candidate has no reason to suspend his campaign.

“It’s really only starting,” one ally said. “The other candidates have had their time to shine and stumble.”

Democratic strategist Basil Smikle said it may not be the end for Bloomberg but he will have to turn things around in the coming days — particularly in the next debate. 

“Most voters probably saw the memes rather than the debate in real time, so he can counter with more ad buys and a little retail politics,” Smikle said.

But more than anything, Reines added, there is “still an open audition for the anti-Bernie slot.”