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Bloomberg: Will the candidate measure up to the campaign architect?
In the Democratic presidential debate Wednesday in Las Vegas, Michael Bloomberg the candidate badly underperformed Michael Bloomberg the brilliant campaign architect.
Architect will insulate candidate this time, preserving the hopes of many center-right Democrats that he can prevail over front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an ardent socialist whom they consider unelectable.
Before the debate, Bloomberg the campaign architect had maneuvered Bloomberg the candidate into third place in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls. Most likely, former vice president Joe Biden's epic collapse will soon leave Bloomberg in second place behind Sanders, setting up the showdown that is the predicate of Bloomberg's candidacy.
None of this would have seemed remotely possible listening to political pundits last November. They dismissed Bloomberg's bid with several trite "truisms" about political tradecraft: Money can't buy the presidency; his late entry would be fatal; he'd fall hopelessly behind by skipping the first four contests; his policy stands are all over the map, so he has no natural following or base.
Well, his $50 billion to $66 billion (estimates vary) provide him a tremendous advantage, and there's a compelling rationale for skipping the first four contests. To flip a popular saying, you can't lose it if you're not in it.
Not being on the ballot guaranteed Bloomberg's survival post-Iowa and post-New Hampshire, and it insulates him from paying the normal price, in Nevada and South Carolina, for his dismal debate performance in Las Vegas.
There's no such safety net for the other candidates, who failed to carry out their necessary debate mission - namely, to slow a surging Sanders. Instead, they attacked Bloomberg and each other in a badly moderated food fight. Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) won't be so fortunate. Neither did anything dramatic to revive themselves in Las Vegas following poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
So, unless pre-publication polling is totally wrong, Sanders will win resoundingly Saturday in Nevada's caucuses. A big Sanders victory means yet another defeat, and perhaps a fatal one, for all the other candidates. That includes Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., for whom it would create a serious loss of momentum going into South Carolina where his lack of black support is sure to be fatal.
And in South Carolina? Rinse and repeat, with the ultimate result being an end to these other candidacies.
So, then, the real race will begin, manifesting the other reason for Bloomberg to have skipped the first four contests: They are inconsequential with only a combined 155 delegates, or 4 percent of all delegates available.
Bloomberg has focused exclusively upon the one contest that really matters, Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states and more than 35 percent of the party's delegates are at stake. This contest is as fateful as the Ides of March.
Bloomberg has been running unopposed on this critical battleground for three months.
Last month, the Texas Tribune reported that the Bloomberg campaign would have 150 staffers in the Lone Star State by January's end. At the beginning of this month, the Bloomberg campaign announced that it had 300 staffers in California and planned 500 more in a matter of days.
Recently, Buttigieg announced that he was sending 24 staffers to Texas. The difference in scale and timing is stunning.
What is even more stunning is Bloomberg's dominance of the airwaves. He has spent about $400 million on TV ads, primarily in Super Tuesday states. Apart from Sanders and the vanity campaign of billionaire Tom Steyer, no other candidate has spent more than $1 million outside of the first four primary states, according to data that Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group is providing FiveThirtyEight.
Bloomberg's massive ground game has been in operation for quite some time. This is the logistical side of politics. (Remember the old saying that armchair generals talk strategy, while battle-tested generals talk logistics.)
On the issues, Bloomberg has been all over the map - with carefully crafted messaging on health care, gun control, climate change, etc., running on TV stations nationwide.
What has Bloomberg, the architect, achieved? The latest polls show him tied with Sanders for the lead in North Carolina (110 delegates) and Virginia (99 delegates), and only four points behind Sanders in California (416 delegates).
Moreover, Bloomberg has several straightforward advantages. With Biden imploding, the former vice president's large following of black voters is up for grabs. Despite Bloomberg's stop-and-frisk policing policy as New York's mayor, he is a likelier beneficiary of Biden's lost following than Mayor Pete, with miniscule black support in all polls, or Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), whose constituency is amongst the whitest in the country.
On experience, Bloomberg is an unrivaled standout as a three-term mayor of the country's largest and most diverse city and a stunningly successful business entrepreneur.
However, none of this can overcome another dismal debate performance by him. The debate in Charleston, S.C., next Tuesday is all important. Coming just days from now, it offers Bloomberg a redo before his Las Vegas debate disaster becomes indelible, and it is the last debate before Super Tuesday one week later.
Assuming Bloomberg the candidate delivers a creditable performance - a critical assumption - and focusing on the one and only issue for all Democrats (beating Donald Trump), I know who I'd pick if I were a Democrat.
As for the civil war between the party's "Sandernistas" and center-right Democrats, the party will reconcile. The enemy of my enemy is my friend - and the enemy of my worst enemy is my best friend.
Democrats have taken an amazingly long time to take Bloomberg seriously. As a Republican, I hope the president hasn't done so, too. After all, the same logic that makes Mayor Mike the strongest Democratic primary candidate makes him a truly formidable opponent in November.
Red Jahncke is president of Townsend Group International, a business consultancy headquartered in Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter @RedJahncke.