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Moderate lawmakers consider alternatives as Biden falters

Mike Bloomberg is gaining traction among some members of Congress who spoke to NBC News.
Image: Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden leaves a polling station after a visit on the day of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary in Manchester, New Hampshire U.S.
Joe Biden leaves a polling station in Manchester on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, the day of New Hampshire primary. Carlos Barria / Reuters

WASHINGTON — After former Vice President Joe Biden's poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats in Congress who want to support a moderate candidate are reassessing who they think would be best to beat President Donald Trump in November.

With Biden having placed fourth and fifth in the first two presidential contests, some Democrats are voicing concern that there won't be a nominee who can appeal to the entire country, despite the moderate positioning of Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who placed consecutively behind Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

One such moderate, Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, is gaining traction among some members of Congress who spoke to NBC News.

Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., who flipped her seat in 2018, joined other House Democratic colleagues in endorsing Bloomberg this week.

"I'm focused on getting Mike Bloomberg elected to president because of the energy and empowerment and excitement that's existing in Michigan," she said. "I think he's got a real campaign and a real message around unity, job growth, trusted leadership and making government work."

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he didn't want to talk about individual candidates, but he added: "If Bloomberg's the nominee, I'd support him. I loved when he said, when somebody asked him, 'Does the country want two billionaires running against each other?' and he said, 'Who is the other one?' So that tells you, one, how well he knows Trump, and second, how smart he is, and I'll leave it at that."

Even Trump's Senate allies are starting to worry about a potential race against a fellow wealthy New York politician.

"I think I'd be more worried if I were a Democrat other than Bloomberg in the campaign, because it looks like he's really starting to resonate," said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind.

Asked whether the president should be concerned about Bloomberg, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who visited Trump at the White House this week, told NBC News: "I actually said this to the president the other day, 'Do you regret getting rid of Joe Biden so early?' And he said, 'Well, you know ... ,'" suggesting that Trump was hesitant to answer in the affirmative.

Amid criticism that Bloomberg has bought his way into the election by outspending his rivals by hundreds of millions of dollars, some congressional Democrats say the issue shouldn't count him out.

"The fact that they are wealthy in and of itself shouldn't disqualify them, but it doesn't qualify them for office, either," said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

At a news conference Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she supported Bloomberg's being in the Democratic field.

"As far as Michael Bloomberg is concerned, I think that his involvement in this campaign will be a positive one," she said.

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the only Republican to vote to convict Trump in the Senate impeachment trial last week, said he thought nominating a moderate Democrat would be the only way to defeat Trump.

"I don't really have any thoughts on the Democratic field, other than if Bernie or Elizabeth becomes the nominee, the president will beat them in a landslide," he said, referring to Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

But newly elected liberal Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who have endorsed Sanders, said they think Bloomberg cannot overcome some controversial positions he has held in the past.

They specifically brought up the recent surfacing of an audio clip of Bloomberg defending New York's stop-and-frisk policing policy, which was unearthed by a podcaster who supports Sanders — which Trump, despite supporting the policy himself, has seized on in criticizing Bloomberg.

Ocasio-Cortez said "quite a few things happened" under Bloomberg as mayor.

"I think our housing crisis was precipitated, or rather accelerated, under his leadership," she said. "And frankly, you know, we all know stop-and-frisk. That was my family, and that was my community, and that was my neighborhood. And we know that this was a policy that decimated a lot of families."

Omar told reporters that while "everybody has the right to endorse whoever they choose to," she doesn't think "anybody who authorized those kinds of policies should be running for president."

In response, Bloomberg said this week that he "inherited the police practice of stop-and-frisk, and as part of our effort to stop gun violence, it was overused."

"By the time I left office, I cut it back by 95 percent, but I should've done it faster and sooner," he said, adding, "I regret that, and I have apologized — and I have taken responsibility for taking too long to understand the impact it had on black and Latino communities."

Biden, for his part, left New Hampshire early for South Carolina, where he's counting on his strength with black voters to redeem his struggling campaign in the state's primary at the end of the month.

"I hear all these experts and pundits and tell them it ain't over, man," he told supporters there. "We're just getting started."

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A Biden ally, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, told MSNBC on Wednesday that Biden "has not projected out into the future the way people would like for him to do."

And while Clyburn said he still thought Biden was, "as of this moment, the leading candidate in South Carolina," he also added, "I do believe as we go into South Carolina it is a five-way contest right now."

In the end, Democrats say they will coalesce around whoever is nominated to defeat Trump.

"The White House has become a toxic cesspool, and the person who is responsible for that is Donald Trump," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, former chair of the Democratic National Committee. "And I am confident that our caucus and Democrats across the country and many Republicans will unite to oust this infection that has invaded the White House."