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Bloomberg storms to the center of the 2020 presidential fray

Analysis: The former New York mayor's stealth campaign has him in third place and on the minds of rival candidates, Democratic insiders and voters.
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MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mike Bloomberg is starting to dominate the national political debate like no one in the past five years other than President Donald Trump.

He rocketed into third place nationally this week in a series of recent Democratic presidential primary polls, even though he hasn't participated in the first contests or any of the party's debates.

His name is constantly on the lips of rival candidates, political insiders and pundits — somehow omni-present by virtue of his absence from the primary here.

And he even found himself at the center of his first full-on controversy Tuesday, with the surfacing of audio recordings of him defending his stop-and-frisk policing policy in terms that the Trump campaign and fellow Democrats described as "racist."

But while the fight had been joined even before poll-closing time here Tuesday, there was a growing sense in Democratic and Republican political circles that Bloomberg is only on the verge of exploding onto the scene with his campaign to take the Democratic Party nomination by storm and drive Trump from power. On Wednesday, three members of the Congressional Black Caucus backed Bloomberg, including Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., and Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.

If nothing else, Bloomberg is making all the other candidates nervous because, after more than a year of watching the primary unfold, a growing number of Democratic insiders and voters think he's their best shot at beating Trump — and Trump appears to be at least open to that view.

Already, Bloomberg has drawn the attention of Trump, Sanders, the progressive leader who sits atop national polls for the Democratic nomination, and a chattering class of Democratic elites so bent on stopping Sanders that it's not always clear defeating Trump is their highest priority. And Bloomberg didn't compete here or in any of the other three early voting states, preferring instead to reserve his fire for the Super Tuesday slate of contests in 14 states on March 3.

"The Beatles were wrong," Republican strategist Alex Castellanos said in an interview here. "Two billion dollars can buy you love, and he is reshaping the political debate here. And in a culture that eats its heroes in one news cycle, his campaign of not running for president may be the best way to run for president."

Sanders has to worry that he could get swamped if the Democratic establishment rallies behind Bloomberg. The rest of the Democratic field has to worry that's exactly what the establishment — worried about Sanders and Trump — is getting ready to do. And Trump has to worry that he'll end up facing off against a more successful capitalist who beat Sanders and proved that the Democratic Party isn't the "socialist" summer camp that Trump likes to portray it as.

"Bloomberg could win the Trump campaign before Trump gets to," Castellanos said.

Of course, there are a lot of candidates between Sanders and Bloomberg right now, and Bloomberg hasn't proved himself on a debate stage or shown that he can respond to the scrutiny he's about to get as a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination. And it's not at all clear yet that a majority of Democratic voters would take to a billionaire former Republican at a time when the very liberal, anti-establishment Sanders has a plurality polling lead in the party.

If anything, any traction Bloomberg gains will tend to make the fight over the direction of the Democratic Party more confusing, as the poles in its nomination battle will belong to two figures who aren't exactly regular Democrats. Sanders has long run as an independent for Congress, and Bloomberg won office as a Republican.

But things are about to get a lot more interesting, as Bloomberg appears to be on the verge of kicking into a much higher gear after Tuesday's results are in.

The truth, as NBC's Lauren Egan reported Tuesday, is that while Bloomberg's campaign may look dormant on the surface, it is hyperkinetic in building a sophisticated organization of high-level staff and key influencers in crucial primary and general-election states around the country. His focus on power players in urban areas is a natural play for a former mayor whose philanthropic unit has underwritten millions upon millions of dollars of projects in American cities — including some Pete Buttigieg touts as success stories as the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

But the link-up with city civic leaders could also create a unique political advantage for Bloomberg. Delegates to the Democratic National Convention are awarded based partially on candidates' performance across each state and within congressional districts. Each district has a distinct number of delegates determined by how well that district has performed for Democrats in past elections. The result is that there are more delegates available in districts with large, heavily Democratic populations.

In turn, that means big cities are the gold mine of Democratic presidential primary elections — and the numbers they provide for Democratic nominees in battleground states are pivotal in general elections. If Bloomberg can turn the influencers into an urban voter-recruitment army over the coming weeks, he should be able to pile up delegates.

That's still a big "if."

As Bloomberg is rising — he now stands in third place in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls behind Sanders and Joe Biden — so is the desire to stop him.

Sanders, who rails against the role of money in politics, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that if he wins the nomination he wouldn't refuse help from Bloomberg, but he also ripped the former New York mayor for pouring cash into his own campaign.

"I think it speaks to a corrupt political system when billionaires can buy elections," Sanders said. "You want to run for president? That's fine, but you should not be able to, you know, spend hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

And while there's no other campaign attached to it, Bloomberg was knocked back on his heels after the release of a recording Monday night of him defending his New York stop-and-frisk policy.

That threatens his ability to build support in the heavily African American and Latino communities that he needs to win a significant share of delegates to the Democratic convention and compete for the nomination. But the fact that a late-to-the-game former Republican is central to the Democratic nomination discussion after skipping the first two primary contests and all the debates so far is compelling evidence that the party's voters are ready to listen to Bloomberg's pitch.

That will now certainly include a heavier dose of what he learned from the stop-and-frisk policy, but it will mostly be about why he believes no one else can beat both Sanders and Trump. And that, many seasoned political observers say, is what matters most to the majority of Democratic voters.

"I think there are going to have to be those genuine conversations that need to happen," Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, said of the stop-and-frisk policy. "But I think when you talk to African American voters, especially African American women, they want to vote for the winner.”