Michael Bloomberg Makes It to the Debate Stage. He May Regret It

6 minute read

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will face the first direct test to his late-to-start bid for the presidency as he stands at the podium next to his Democratic rivals on Wednesday on the Las Vegas Strip.

For a lot of Americans, the debate will be their first time seeing Bloomberg on screen without a Bloomberg film crew editing the plot from behind the scenes. For the other candidates, it will be their first chance to go head to head with the billionaire who has been vastly outspending anyone on the stage and who is poised to challenge Sen. Bernie Sanders’ front-runner status.

Bloomberg is certain to draw fire from everyone present. The candidates will have fertile ground to challenge his record running America’s largest city. He is expected to be called to task for past comments about gender and race that appear insensitive, at best. And other candidates will not forget to mention how he has used his vast personal wealth to enter the primary race on Super Tuesday — after voters in four states will have already weighed in.

Bloomberg’s entry into a race he once said he would skip shifted the campaign’s axis. He has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars introducing himself to the nation and launching his bid with a coast-to-coast play before 14 states weigh in on March 3’s Super Tuesday. In those states alone, he has doled out $124 million in ads, compared to Sanders’ outlay of less than $10 million. Bloomberg’s wealth and spending alike dwarf the checkbook of the other billionaire still in the mix, Tom Steyer, who did not qualify for Wednesday’s debate. Bloomberg’s campaign seems to have limitless resources, replete with lavish spreads and open bars at his events.

His ad blitz appears to be working. In an NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday, only 8 percent of Americans said they didn’t know Bloomberg’s name, compared to 18 percent who were unfamiliar with him in December.

Wednesday will be one of two debates Democrats have before Super Tuesday, and the highest profile chance Bloomberg’s rivals will get to show their mettle against the new moderate in the race. Because Bloomberg isn’t participating in the Nevada caucuses or South Carolina primary, this is their best opportunity to show relative strength against a billionaire who has pledged to open his pockets through November, whether he is the nominee or not.

The brief against Bloomberg is significant, and his advisers know this as well as anyone. In preparation for the debate, advisers have been hurling mock rejoinders and pointed questions at Bloomberg about his record both as mayor and as head of a vast media and financial data empire that made him into one of the richest people on the planet.

During Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor in New York, for instance, policing practices known as “stop and frisk” were widely criticized for disproportionally targeting minorities. Now, Bloomberg apologizes for not sooner acting to end the policies that were in place when he became mayor and escalated on his watch. He has also apologized for comments that seemed to suggest that when banks ended discriminatory practices that denied housing loans to minorities — shorthanded as “redlining” — it helped fuel the 2008 economic meltdown.

Bloomberg can also anticipate sharp critiques for how his business has treated employees. Rivals have been studying lawsuits and news reports about a highly controlled culture that could seem out-of-step with today’s standards. Bloomberg is sensitive to questions about his wealth and privately held business, so candidates have been reading up on both — especially any with interests in China’s economy.

The pile-on has already started.

“I think he has to answer for his treatment of others, for his language and above all for an attitude that seems to have dismissed the humanity of a lot of people,” Buttigieg told NBC News on Tuesday, the eve of the debate.

The same day, Sen. Elizabeth Warren sent to her almost four million Twitter followers a link to a story about the New York Police Department’s strategy to infiltrate and surveil mosques during the Bloomberg era. Of the 13 tweets Warren sent on Tuesday, two were aimed squarely at Bloomberg and none at others in the race.

Biden’s campaign — which finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire — called into question Bloomberg’s continued ownership of a news organization that is now tasked with reporting on their boss’s campaign. A communications aide noted that Bloomberg had promised to divest from his finance and media operations if he ran, but now says he’ll do it only if he wins.

“Sixty billion dollars can buy you a lot of advertising,” former Vice President Joe Biden told “Meet the Press” this weekend, citing one estimate of Bloomberg’s wealth. “But it can’t erase your record.”

And Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who surprised many when she finished third in New Hampshire after another strong debate performance, was also laying the groundwork to make Bloomberg squirm even if she, too, cannot ultimately keep up with his ad machine.

“He’ll probably have more ads during your show in certain states than I am on answering your questions,” she told CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” “I think he cannot hide behind the airwaves and the money.”

Observers say even if Bloomberg takes a beating on stage, that continued ad spending may eclipse a poor debate performance. “Even if it’s bad for him in the traditional sense — or would have [been] in a past cycle — that may not even matter given number of people who will watch debate versus see the $100 million in ads the following week,” says Democratic strategist Eddie Vale of the debate stakes.

For weeks, campaigns have been alleging Bloomberg was trying to buy his way onto the stage. Now, it’s time to see if he thinks it was still a good use of his cash.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com