2020 Election
February 20, 2020

Going into Wednesday’s Democratic debate, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg loomed over the field like a colossus. His hundreds of millions of dollars in TV ads had desperate Democratic voters casting him as a potential savior: confident, mainstream, able to win. For the other candidates, he posed a challenge: by turning on him, they might only cement him as the contest’s central figure, allowing him to rise above the fray and offer an escape from the morass of the 2020 primary to date.

But in the most combative debate yet this cycle, the Bloomberg who finally appeared on stage fell far short of his scripted television presence. Halting and wooden, he struggled to answer rivals’ attacks, at one point offering excuses so thin for his record on racial and gender issues that the studio audience in the Las Vegas theater booed. Instead of Bloomberg, it was Senator Elizabeth Warren who emerged as the focal point, with a slashing performance that spared none of her rivals.

“Look, I’ll support whoever the Democratic nominee is,” Warren said. “But understand this: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”

The debate came at a pivotal moment in the race to take on President Trump in November. Iowa and New Hampshire failed to produce a runaway favorite, instead giving each of the six candidates onstage just enough oxygen to stay alive—and handing Bloomberg an opening. For weeks now, the billionaire businessman and the rest of the Democratic field have been operating in parallel universes, with Bloomberg gaining strength in the Super Tuesday states he’s blanketed with ads as his rivals scrap for territory in the first four contests Bloomberg opted to forego. At the Nevada debate, the two tracks finally collided—and the question now is whether Bloomberg’s anemic performance will cause those who’d latched onto him to flake away in disillusionment.

After poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, Warren’s campaign had been written off in some quarters. A single debate might not change that, or do much to slow the momentum Bloomberg has built in national polls. Early voting is already over in Nevada and under way in many of the Super Tuesday states that will report results on March 3. But the debate threw another curveball into a primary that’s highlighted Democrats’ angst and indecision, with no clear resolution on the horizon.

Perhaps the most surprising element of Bloomberg’s performance was that after being everyone’s target in an opening barrage, there were long stretches when he seemed to disappear. He rarely interjected and was terse when called on to speak. During one moment of crosstalk, Bloomberg appealed to the moderators for time in a pitch-perfect New Yorkism: “What am I, chicken liver?”

Senator Bernie Sanders, who won the most votes in the first two contests and holds a strong lead in polling for Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, took more incoming fire at this debate than he has at most others, parrying attacks on his online supporters’ well known viciousness, the cost of his health-care proposal and the potential divisiveness of his far-left vision. But like Warren, he skillfully used Bloomberg as a foil, decrying the billionaire as an avatar of economic inequality and turning back as “a cheap shot” Bloomberg’s attempt to equate his democratic socialism with communist regimes.

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg leads the race in delegates but has struggled to establish himself in polling outside the first two states. Buttigieg was a polished presence as usual, but for much of the debate, he grew mired in a series of spats with Senator Amy Klobuchar, who’s vying with Buttigieg to emerge as the candidate of choice for moderate Democratic voters. Klobuchar attacked Buttigieg’s slender political record, while he painted her as an opportunist willing to compromise her principles in voting to confirm the nominees of President Donald Trump. Both emerged bruised. “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” Klobuchar said. When the debate wrapped, the Minnesota senator, clearly frustrated, took a wide berth around Buttigieg and exited stage right.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden, the one-time front-runner whose candidacy has stumbled, delivered a solid but unremarkable performance. The end result may be that the candidates perceived as moderates—Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Biden and Bloomberg—remain locked in combat while Sanders continues to rack up delegates in the contests to come.

Yet if Sanders is the man to beat, it was Bloomberg who bore the brunt of rivals’ broadsides. The attacks on him were utterly predictable: his history of sexist comments and gender-discrimination lawsuits, his longtime advocacy of New York’s “stop and frisk” anticrime policy that critics call racist and courts have found unconstitutional. The former mayor explained that he’s reconsidered and apologized for the policy. But Warren picked apart his apology as too little too late, and Bloomberg had no response. When he tried to argue that the nondisclosure agreements his company struck with women who made accusations were mutually sought, Warren hounded him like a skilled prosecutor, making him visibly uncomfortable. “I hope you heard what his defense was—’I’ve been nice to some women,’” she said. “That just doesn’t cut it.”

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It was a stark turn in strategy for a senator who has pitched herself as a unity candidate. No one on stage escaped Warren’s attacks. She called Buttigieg’s health-care proposal a “PowerPoint” and Klobuchar’s a “Post-It note.” She turned her fire on Sanders, whom she’d treated mainly as a brother-in-arms to this point. His “Medicare for All” health care policy—which she once endorsed—is merely “a good start,” she charged, going on to accuse him of unseriousness. “His campaign relentlessly attacks everyone who asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make this work,” she said. “And then his own advisors say, yeah, probably won’t happen anyway.”

Whether Warren was trying to show voters she can wield the knife against Trump or simply letting loose a year’s worth of frustration, the question going forward will be whether she can turn the breakout performance into votes. For all the blows she landed, she still finds herself caught between moderate voters who see her as too radical and a liberal wing that has lined up in greater numbers with Sanders. She had an opportunity to situate herself slightly to Sanders’s right with a question about her avowed support for capitalism, but instead she used it to pivot to a generic unity plea.

Tellingly, Sanders was the only candidate to take the position that the candidate with the most delegates should be the nominee whether or not he or she has a majority going into this summer’s convention in Milwaukee. It was the clearest sign to date that every contender is already doing the math about what happens if the Democrats arrive at their convention without a choice.

Write to Molly Ball at molly.ball@time.com and Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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