The Memo: Bloomberg faces moment of truth

The Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday just got much more interesting.

A poll released Tuesday made former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg eligible to take the stage for the first time since launching his campaign in late November.

His rivals will be out to get him.

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The billionaire businessman has been rising sharply in the polls — a fact that virtually everyone, friend or foe, attributes to his colossal spending on TV advertising.

In the new national poll from NPR, PBS and Marist, Bloomberg was at 19 percent, good enough for second place to Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats say Biden survived brutal debate — and that's enough The Hill's Morning Report - Fight night: Trump, Biden hurl insults in nasty debate Trump, Biden clash over health care as debate begins MORE (I-Vt.) and his 31 percent support.

Bloomberg now poses a mortal political threat to the other contenders for the Democratic nomination, who have spent many more months toiling to raise money and campaigning on the ground in the four early voting states.

Bloomberg has chosen not to compete in the first contests. He won’t be on the ballot until March 3, when 14 states vote on Super Tuesday.

To his rivals, Bloomberg is engaged in a blatant attempt to buy the nomination. To his supporters, he is legitimately using his resources to make the case that he is the most electable candidate to take on President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump signs bill averting shutdown after brief funding lapse Privacy, civil rights groups demand transparency from Amazon on election data breaches Facebook takes down Trump campaign ads tying refugees to coronavirus MORE in November.

Enmity between the pro- and anti-Bloomberg factions has been rising in tandem with his poll ratings. It has come to a boil in recent days and could spill over into the debate.

Sanders, the current front-runner, tweeted on Monday that Bloomberg “like anybody else, has a right to run for president. He does not have a right to buy the presidency.”

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Later that day, after Bloomberg’s campaign released a statement referring to Trump as “Bernie’s new bro” — a reference to a purported desire on Trump’s part to run against the Vermonter — Sanders tweeted a photo of a smiling Bloomberg by Trump’s side, both men dressed in golfing attire.

Pouring gasoline on the fire, Bloomberg campaign manager Kevin Sheekey on Tuesday tweeted: “The opposition research on @BernieSanders could fill @RealDonaldTrump’s empty Foxconn facility in Wisconsin. It is very damaging, perhaps even disqualifying.”

That, in turn, drew the wrath of Sanders’s supporters — in part because of the lack of specificity that accompanied its ominous tone.

Sanders is far from the only candidate at loggerheads with Bloomberg.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren slams Trump over Proud Boys comments Ocasio-Cortez, Warren pull out of New Yorker Festival amid labor dispute The Hill's Morning Report - Fight night: Trump, Biden hurl insults in nasty debate MORE (D-Mass.) tweeted Tuesday that Bloomberg’s participation in the debate would give voters a chance to see “a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire” — an allusion directly linking Bloomberg and Trump.

On Friday, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Klobuchar3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing Social media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE (D-Minn.) told reporters that she would welcome Bloomberg’s first appearance in a debate. “I can’t beat him on the airwaves, but I can beat him on the debate stage,” she said.

Warren and Klobuchar have their own reasons to slam Bloomberg. Neither has come close to winning either of the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire — Warren placed third in Iowa, Klobuchar third in New Hampshire — and they risk being eclipsed as Bloomberg rises.

But their arguments also go to the heart of Bloomberg’s debate conundrum.

The former mayor could have declined to participate in the debate, given that he is not on the ballot in Nevada for Saturday’s caucuses or in the South Carolina primary a week later. But doing so would have left him open to accusations of running scared.

On the other hand, Bloomberg’s lavish advertising “air war” — on which he is estimated to have spent about $350 million so far — has allowed him to frame his message uncontested, avoiding instant rebuttals from other candidates. That will change abruptly on Wednesday evening.

Bloomberg has real challenges going into the debate. His last election race was more than a decade ago, when he won a third term as New York City mayor by a narrower than expected margin over city Comptroller William Thompson.

Veteran New York observers of Bloomberg say he is not a particularly compelling speaker or charismatic presence. But they also emphasize that his rivals should assume he will come to the stage well-prepared — and willing to make an aggressive stand.

He may not be a daring orator, but he is no dilettante either, they say.

“The expectations are very modest because of those people who saw him as mayor. Speaking to the press and at press conferences, he was not a great orator. And he often misused words,” said George Arzt, a longtime fixture on the New York political scene who worked as press secretary for former Mayor Ed Koch.

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“However, he has been prepping for the debate and I expect him to be better than what the expectations are,” said Arzt, who has done work for Bloomberg that preceded the businessman’s political career.

Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist in New York, said it was “the smart move” for Bloomberg to participate in the debate.

“He is proficient on expounding on his record and he is proficient about hitting back,” Sheinkopf said.

He noted, however, that while Bloomberg does not wilt when he comes under attack, he can have the reverse problem, being a bit too prickly in his responses.

“He may get testy,” Sheinkopf said.

There are, of course, more substantive problems too. 

Bloomberg first won election as mayor as a Republican. His support for the controversial police practice known as stop and frisk would seem to be a serious millstone. And the simple fact that he is a billionaire centrist seems ill-suited to the current mood of the Democratic Party.

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His rivals will hit those points and more on Wednesday.

“They are going to hammer him. They are going to hammer him on what he should be hammered on,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of political science at The Marxe School at Baruch College CUNY.

“They have to put him on the hot seat because he is going to outspend all of them by a couple of hundred million dollars,” he said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.