Sanders enters Wednesday's debate as the Democratic front-runner

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Image: Supporters cheer at a voting rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, in Las Vegas on Feb. 15, 2020.
Supporters cheer at a voting rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, in Las Vegas on Feb. 15, 2020.Alex Wong / Getty Images

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Melissa Holzberg

LAS VEGAS — What’s new heading into tonight’s Democratic debate here is Michael Bloomberg making his first appearance on the debate stage.

But the big news before tonight’s ninth primary debate is how Bernie Sanders has become the clear front-runner in the Democratic field — and how he might be difficult to stop if no one does it in Nevada or South Carolina.

Our new NBC News/WSJ poll has Sanders ahead by double digits nationally.

It’s Sanders 27 percent among Democratic primary voters, Joe Biden at 15 percent, Michael Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren at 14 percent, Pete Buttigieg at 13 percent and Amy Klobuchar at 7 percent.

(When you reduce it to a hypothetical two-way race, Sanders holds a 20-point lead over Bloomberg and a 16-point lead over Buttigieg.)

A new Washington Post/ABC poll shows a similar national spread: Sanders 32 percent, Biden 16 percent, Bloomberg 14 percent, Warren 12 percent, Buttigieg 8 percent and Klobuchar 7 percent.

And looking ahead to the mega-Super Tuesday state of California, a PPIC poll of the Golden State has it Sanders 32 percent, Biden 14 percent, Warren 13 percent and Bloomberg and Buttigieg at 12 percent.

Remember, if a candidate isn’t hitting 15 percent (either statewide or in congressional districts), he or she is not picking up delegates.

And that’s the delegate-math reality going into tonight’s debate: It is possible — though hardly certain — that Sanders could rack up a delegate lead on Super Tuesday that becomes difficult to erase.

Of course, our NBC News/WSJ poll also shows Sanders with plenty of potential vulnerabilities.

The survey finds 67 percent of registered voters being uncomfortable with a “socialist” as presidential candidate; 57 percent being uncomfortable with a candidate who’s had a heart attack in the past year; and 53 percent being uncomfortable with a candidate older than 75.

But as great Yogi Berra put it — it’s getting late early.

Data Download: The number of the day is … 14 points

Fourteen points.

That’s the decline in Joe Biden’s support from African-American voters in the Democratic horserace, per the new NBC News/WSJ poll.

In January’s poll (before Iowa and New Hampshire), Biden was getting the support of 52 percent of African-American voters nationally.

But in our latest poll, it’s now 38 percent.

That’s followed by Bernie Sanders at 23 percent (down 5 points from January) and Michael Bloomberg at 18 percent (up 9 points).

Trump looks much stronger than he did six months ago

The other headline from our NBC News/WSJ poll is President Trump’s job rating creeping up to 47 percent – tied for his all-time high in the survey.

What’s more, 53 percent approve of his handling of the economy.

And a narrow majority of all voters — 51 percent — say they favor the U.S. Senate’s decision to acquit him in the impeachment trial, versus 47 percent who oppose the acquittal.

Trump also has been flexing his political muscles after the impeachment trial: Yesterday alone, he pardoned or acquitted the likes of “disgraced politician Rod R. Blagojevich, convicted junk bond king Michael Milken and former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik,” the Washington Post writes.

Now our poll has Trump trailing the Dem field in hypothetical general-election contests.

But it’s not wrong to conclude that Trump looks stronger than he did six months ago.

2020 Vision: Dems are split on Bloomberg

Our new NBC News/WSJ poll has a combined 47 percent to Dem primary voters saying they’re enthusiastic/comfortable with Michael Bloomberg, versus an equal 47 percent who say they have reservations or are very uncomfortable.

And that 47-47 split is the worst showing for any major Dem candidate on this scale.

  • Sanders: 65 percent enthusiastic/comfortable, 34 percent reservations/very uncomfortable.
  • Warren: 60 percent to 35 percent.
  • Buttigieg 55 percent to 36 percent.
  • Klobuchar: 51 percent to 33 percent.
  • Biden: 56 percent, 43 percent.
  • Bloomberg: 47 percent to 47 percent.

On the campaign trail today

Tonight, beginning at 9:00 p.m. ET, six Dems participate in the NBC News/MSNBC/Nevada Independent debate in Las Vegas — Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bloomberg… Before the debate, Warren joins a Culinary Union picket at the Palms Casino… And President Trump holds a rally in Phoenix at 9:00 pm ET.

Dispatches from NBC’s campaign embeds

The campaigns are still litigating Iowa, NBC’s Maura Barrett and Shaquille Brewster report. Per Barrett, the Iowa Democratic Party said yesterday that after a recanvas, “no changes to national delegate allocation” will be made. But Bernie Sanders is now requesting a recount of some precincts because, “Buttigieg and Sanders are now essentially TIED in State Delegate equivalents. Buttigieg has 563.207 while Sanders has 563.127. This would explain why Sanders is pressing for a recount, in case it changes the SDE which then could change the national delegate count.”

Tweet of the day

ICYMI: New clips you shouldn’t miss

Alex Seitz-Wald writes that Bloomberg’s relationship with Obama is much more complicated than Bloomberg’s ads suggest.

The Justice Department is tightening rules regarding Ukraine investigations which could impact Giuliani.

The Iowa Democratic Party completed their recanvass … nothing really changed.

Five Chinese media organizations will have to register their personnel and property with the U.S. government, per a new Trump administration policy.

Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine opened fire against a Ukrainian soldier in the stalemated war.

The jury in the Harvey Weinstein case began deliberations on Tuesday, they ended the day without a verdict.

Trump Agenda: LA (not-so) confidential

President Trump barely touched down in California, and immediately attacked L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Attorney General Barr apparently considered resigning over the president’s continued tweet attacks on the DOJ.

2020: Blind trust

Michael Bloomberg says he’ll put his company in a blind trust, eventually sell it if he becomes president.

Look to Bloomberg’s past debate performances to see how he’ll stack up tonight.

The two mild-mannered Midwesterners, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, may take the gloves off tonight.