Presidential debate preview: Bloomberg, on stage for the first time, may become punching bag for Sanders

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Leading into the ninth Democratic debate Wednesday night, the ball is in Sen. Bernie Sander’s court.

After a strong showing in Iowa and taking first place in New Hampshire, the Vermont Senator is in a position he’s never been in before. For the first time, he is the front-runner on the debate stage.

Strategically, that means Sanders should be focusing his attention on Trump to convince voters of his electability rather than devoting too much time trying to peel away support from other candidates trying to gain traction.

But that now seems to be traditional thinking in an emerging non-traditional primary with the relatively recent entrance of billionaire Mike Bloomberg on the debate stage for the first time.

While Bloomberg is still behind Sanders by double digits in national and Texas polling, he has risen rapidly in those polls, perhaps too rapidly for Sanders’ comfort– which would explain why both candidates have been happy to take potshots at each other in the days leading up to the debate. 

Sanders kicked off the feud at a Las Vegas rally last Saturday where he accused Bloomberg of previously advocating for cuts to Medicare and Social Security (in reference to a 2011 Fox News interview where Bloomberg suggests those social safety net programs should not be viewed as uncuttable) and also said Bloomberg was attempting to buy the election.

Bloomberg responded the next day with a video on Twitter highlighting aggressive social media posts by Sanders supporters insulting other candidates. “We need to unite to defeat Trump in November. This type of ‘energy’ is not going to get us there,” Bloomberg wrote along with the video. 

The two campaigns have since kept trading attacks, and now, the question ahead of the debate is whether their feud will continue on stage in front of millions of viewers.

One scenario is that the two leading candidates, already both fending off attacks from lower-polling contenders, end the evening with relatively little friction between each other, essentially allowing rival candidates to do the punching for them. In other words, candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar (the latter of which saw an uptick in polling after placing third in New Hampshire) will have more to gain by going on the attack than Sanders and Bloomberg do.

But another scenario, which seems possible given the intensity between the attacks this past week, is a scorched earth debate where neither benefits. Such a scenario is akin to the 2004 Democratic primaries where the front-runners Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt engaged in a successful negative ad campaign against each other and allowed John Kerry to rise in the polls to secure the Iowa Caucuses and eventually the nomination.

Whatever route the candidates decide to go on Wednesday evening will have major implications for Texas, where both Bloomberg and Sanders (especially Bloomberg) have invested in heavily.

The Las Vegas debate which begins at 8 p.m. central time, is the second to last debate before Super Tuesday, when more than a dozen states, including Texas, vote in primary contests up and down the ballot.

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

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