WASHINGTON/LAS VEGAS (Reuters) – The Democratic presidential contenders began a frantic dash for votes on Thursday, with big-spending billionaire Michael Bloomberg seeking to move past a bruising debate debut while several of his rivals jockeyed to be the moderate alternative to liberal U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.
There are just two days to go before the presidential caucuses in Nevada. After that, contests loom in South Carolina, followed by Super Tuesday on March 3, when voters in 14 states, including California, Utah and Colorado, cast ballots.
The blistering attacks launched on Wednesday night at Bloomberg – over his record on race, history of sexist comments and use of his fortune to push his way up in opinion polls – could damage his pitch that he has the best chance of beating Republican President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 election.
The former New York City mayor, who entered the race late and will not be on primary ballots until Super Tuesday, has tried to position himself as a moderate alternative to Sanders, a democratic socialist.
Bloomberg’s campaign moved to stem the fallout early on Thursday by announcing new endorsements from Congress members from New York, New Jersey and California, after arguing on Wednesday night that he was “just warming up.”
Then, in a nod to U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s charge during the debate that Democrats nominating Bloomberg to take on Trump would be exchanging “one arrogant billionaire for another,” he told a rally in Utah: “We could not be more different; I bill myself as the un-Trump.”
“Look, the real winner in the debate last night was Donald Trump,” Bloomberg added.
Meanwhile Warren, who also landed early jabs during the debate related to Bloomberg’s use of nondisclosure agreements for women at his company and his support while mayor of stop-and-frisk policing policies, continued on her offensive.
“The Democrats should not appoint someone who has a history of embracing racially outrageous practices,” Warren told ABC’s daytime show “The View” when asked why she focused her attacks on Bloomberg rather than Trump.
“We don’t know how many times he’s been charged with discrimination against women, or with sexual harassment, and he’s just shoveled some of his money in to cover it up,” Warren added.
At the debate, rivals Sanders, Warren, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg all piled on Bloomberg, who has surged in polls by spending hundreds of millions of dollars out of his own pocket on a TV ad blitz.
Warren’s campaign said it set fundraising records on Wednesday by bringing in $425,000 during the first hour of the debate and $2.8 million over the course of the day. Sanders’ campaign likewise announced it had raised a record $2.7 million on Wednesday.
One Democratic strategist supportive of Warren’s campaign said Wednesday night showed “she’s not afraid to fight for herself or stand up to those with power and privilege” after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Buttigieg’s campaign warned in a strategy memo on Thursday that Sanders must be stopped before he amasses an “insurmountable delegate lead” and that Bloomberg’s performance showed he was ill-equipped to do so.
Initial results from the Iowa caucuses, the nation’s first nominating contest, gave Buttigieg a one-delegate lead over Sanders. The two rivals won an equal number of delegates from the second contest in New Hampshire, though Sanders got more votes overall.
Tad Devine, a former adviser to Sanders who worked on the now-shuttered Andrew Yang campaign, said he believed Warren delivered the best debate performance but it was also a win for Sanders: “When you are the front-runner, and no one does anything to stop you, it’s a good night.”
It “raises the stakes enormously,” however, for Bloomberg, who is blanketing states with advertisements but has yet to show he can engage directly with voters and the media, he said.
“It’s one thing to have your aides press you, it’s another when you have a rival pressing you on live television,” Devine said.
Nevada’s caucuses will be the third contest in the state-by-state race to find a challenger to Trump. South Carolina holds its primary on Feb. 29. Sanders leads most recent opinion polls in both states.
Buttigieg has a town hall meeting and a fundraiser scheduled for Thursday in Los Angeles. Warren and Biden are campaigning in Nevada before participating in CNN town halls from Las Vegas. Klobuchar has a campaign event in Colorado.
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