The “rigged” system is suddenly working in Sen. Bernard Sanders’ favor.
The Vermont Democratic socialist and most of the other 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls cried foul when the Democratic National Committee changed the rules and allowed billionaire media mogul Michael Bloomberg onto the debate stage, but the setup proved to be a boon for Mr. Sanders.
Mr. Bloomberg drew a barrage of fire away from the front-running Mr. Sanders at the Las Vegas debate Wednesday night, and the tycoon’s botched performance further muddied the more moderate lane of the race and helped clear a path for Mr. Sanders’ socialist-style run.
Though he was branded the debate loser, Mr. Bloomberg on Thursday said the “real winner” of the debate was President Trump, tacitly acknowledging that the free-for-all could ultimately boost Mr. Sanders, who is leading in multiple polls.
“Because I worry that we may very well be on the way to nominating somebody who cannot win in November.” Mr. Bloomberg said at a campaign stop in Utah. “And if we choose a candidate who appeals to a small base like Sen. Sanders, it will be a fatal error.”
Mr. Bloomberg, head of the Bloomberg News empire and former New York City mayor, struggled in the debate to fend off a barrage of accusations that he championed racist police tactics in New York and that his company worked to silence women who charged sexual harassment.
After Mr. Bloomberg missed the first eight debates, he was a prime target Wednesday, absorbing attacks and eating up time that candidates could have spent going after front-running Mr. Sanders.
Mr. Sanders and others should be applauding the DNC for opening up the debate stage to Mr. Bloomberg, said Republican strategist Charlie Gerow.
“They should now be thrilled,” Mr. Gerow said. “He clearly showed he wasn’t ready for prime-time, much less for aged reruns.”
Mr. Sanders has been leading in Nevada polling ahead of Saturday’s caucuses and is also the front-runner in California, the biggest prize of the 14 states that vote in the Super Tuesday primaries March 3.
Still, Sanders supporters remain wary that the DNC will try to tip the scales against him, after a 2016 Democratic race that saw leaked emails where party officials mused about how to block him from toppling Hillary Clinton.
Last month, the party dropped a fundraising requirement for candidates to get on the debate stage in Las Vegas, a move criticized for giving a boost to Mr. Bloomberg, who is refusing all donations and is using his $60 billion net worth to blanket the TV airwaves with ads.
Jeff Weaver, a senior Sanders adviser, fumed at the time that the DNC’s move was the “definition of a rigged system.”
Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmental activist who did not qualify for Wednesday’s debate, said Thursday that the DNC reshuffled the rules for Mr. Bloomberg.
“The DNC literally told us, we don’t care about the voters of Nevada and South Carolina,” Mr. Steyer said on CNN. “They changed the rules for Mike Bloomberg.”
But DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said Thursday that they didn’t make the rules based on any particular candidate.
“If you’re polling over 10% at this point in the race, then you need to answer questions from the American people,” she said on Fox News. “And I think you saw that … from every single person.”
The DNC did provide a path for lower-polling candidates to get on the stage, saying contenders also could qualify by winning at least one pledged delegate to the Democratic National Convention from Iowa or New Hampshire.
That path had been in effect for the New Hampshire debate on Feb. 7, based on the results of the Iowa caucuses. It helped Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota get on the stage in Las Vegas.
Ms. Klobuchar was allocated an estimated seven delegates to the party’s national convention based on her performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, while Mr. Steyer hasn’t won any delegates.
John Verdejo, a DNC member from North Carolina, disputed the use of the term “rigged” but acknowledged that the Las Vegas debate ended up being a good night for non-Bloomberg candidates.
“If it was rigged, Bloomberg would have had a better night,” he said.
He compared the free-for-all in Las Vegas to a scene from “The Godfather” where a young Michael Corleone is told that crime families have sporadic wars to get rid of the “bad blood.”
“It had to happen because a whole lot of us, and I imagine presidential candidates as well, kind of looked at Bloomberg like, who are you to just come in here? Meanwhile, we prepared for this for the last two years,” he said. “The only thing I regret is that they didn’t use whatever remaining minutes to go after the real target, which was Donald Trump.”
While Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign has tried to nudge other more moderate candidates to get out of the race, Pete Buttigieg’s team on Thursday said their candidate is the best alternative to Mr. Sanders.
In a “state of the race” memo, the Buttigieg campaign said Mr. Bloomberg “had the worst debate performance in the history of presidential debates.”
“If Bloomberg remains in the race despite showing he can not offer a viable alternative to Bernie Sanders, he will propel Sanders to a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead, siphoning votes away from Pete,” the memo said.
Mr. Buttigieg, an openly gay former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, pressed Mr. Sanders in the debate on releasing more of his medical records. But he got more attention for his verbal jousting with Ms. Klobuchar.
Mr. Buttigieg harangued Ms. Klobuchar for blanking on the name of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in a recent interview, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts stuck up for her colleague, saying such a slip isn’t uncommon.
“I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” Ms. Klobuchar said as the two were discussing immigration policy.
Ms. Warren, meanwhile, went nuclear on Mr. Bloomberg in the debate.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg,” she said.
Ms. Hinojosa said clear contrasts among the candidates are to be expected.
“This is a primary. This is how things go, and I have no doubt that our party will come together at the end of this primary,” she said.
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