LAS VEGAS — Mike Bloomberg might not be Donald Trump. But he was a perfect presidential stand-in for his Democratic rivals Wednesday night.
They upbraided him again and again, wasting no time or opportunity in the NBC/MSNBC debate here to show voters just how each of them would treat an ideologically ambiguous billionaire New York politician with a spotty record on matters of race and gender discrimination.
"I'd like to talk about who we're running against, a billionaire who calls women 'fat broads' and 'horse-faced lesbians.' And, no, I'm not talking about Donald Trump — I'm talking about Mayor Bloomberg," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said just a couple of minutes into the debate.
"Look, I'll support whoever the Democratic nominee is. But understand this: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another."
Bernie Sanders, the national front-runner, piled on, as did Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.
Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, took their blows, often refused to make eye contact and punched back only selectively — suggesting that Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, backs "communism," for example — as he implored Democrats to pick the candidate who can defeat Trump and run the country.
"I would argue that I am the candidate that can do exactly both of those things," Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg basically told Democrats that they need him — and his billions — more than he needs them. That's the subtext of his campaign, and his obvious hope is that his debate performance will matter little to voters compared to the slick advertisements he's running and the money he's pumping into organizations in the states.
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And yet he actively worked to alienate key parts of the Democratic coalition that he would need to win a general election against Trump. Sanders, the central object of his derision, is currently the choice of about one-third of the Democratic electorate in national polls, which is more than any other candidate. Warren, with whom he also clashed, represents another group of progressive and moderate voters.
"I'm a philanthropist who didn't inherit his money but made his money, and I'm spending money to get rid of Donald Trump, the worst president we have ever had," Bloomberg said. "And if I can get that done, it will be a great contribution to America and to my kids."
To follow that logic: In his benevolence, he's spending his hard-earned cash in behalf of the country and his kids — not himself — in pursuit of the presidency.
As a candidate who waited for more than a year to jump into the race and is now pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money into his campaign, Bloomberg could not have been surprised that he was the target of attacks from all sides. He and his campaign anticipated that and lowered expectations for his performance.
But no one could have figured just how unprepared he would look when he was asked obvious questions like whether he would release women from their obligations under non-disclosure agreements.
Under the rising pressure of a two-week stretch in which voters in 16 states will cast ballots, all of the candidates — including Bloomberg — turned on one another with a ferocity that made their last several meetings look like yoga classes.
It was ugly. It was reminiscent of 2016 Republican debates, which devolved into personal invective between Trump and a series of rivals. And it was basically what a lot of Democrats have been waiting to see as they try to determine which of their hopefuls actually has what it takes to stand up for their values and win a battle with Trump.
Of course, most of the candidates themselves — who spent the last year averting risk by avoiding conflict — won't ever say that they think it's useful to draw a lot of blood on a debate stage.
"Not my favorite night for the Democratic Party," said Klobuchar, a senator from Minnesota. "It bothered me that it got personal."
And yet Klobuchar got pretty personal in her back-and-forth moments with Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who ripped her for failing to recall the name of Mexico's president when she was asked recently.
"I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete," she said.
Ultimately, Bloomberg served as the necessary catalyst for the Democratic candidates to step up their fight.
"This election is accelerating and happening before our very eyes," David Plouffe, Barack Obama's campaign manager in 2008, said on MSNBC after the debate.