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The 7 most dramatic, eye-popping moments from the Democratic debate in Las Vegas

Everybody piled on Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg went after Bernie Sanders, and much more.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Mike Bloomberg and Joe Biden are seen on screens in a media room during the ninth Democratic debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 19, 2020.
Bridget Bennett/AFP via Getty Images

At the Democratic debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, Mike Bloomberg took a lot of heat, Elizabeth Warren looked feisty, and Bernie Sanders started to get the frontrunner treatment from his competitors.

Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, was the target early and often for the other Democratic candidates; they attacked him for his billions of dollars in wealth, the sexual harassment allegations he’s faced, and his record as mayor, particularly his continuation of the stop-and-frisk policy that disproportionately affected nonwhite New Yorkers. Warren was his most relentless foil, going after him again and again on a range of subjects. Sanders faced plenty of scrutiny, too, from his opponents and from the debate moderators, befitting his status as the tentative frontrunner with voting finally underway.

With three days before the Nevada caucuses, Wednesday night’s debate performance was pivotal for several candidates. With votes already cast in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders has established himself as the early frontrunner, but the race still seems very volatile.

Pete Buttigieg narrowly won Iowa and finished a strong second in New Hampshire, but he might struggle as the primary moves to more diverse states. After dismal showings in the first two states, Joe Biden is still betting he can turn his campaign around in Nevada and then South Carolina before having a big Super Tuesday on March 3. Warren and Amy Klobuchar have done enough to keep their campaigns afloat, but they need to break through soon to make a serious run at the party’s nomination.

The new face onstage, Bloomberg, has shaken up the race by exponentially outspending the other candidates on television ads, and he has been correspondingly rising in the national polls. His campaign starts in earnest on Super Tuesday. But Wednesday’s debate was the first chance voters have had to see him on the debate stage with his opponents.

If you missed the ninth Democratic debate, and Bloomberg’s debut, these were the most important moments.

Everybody piled on Bloomberg

The shiny new object on stage was Bloomberg, who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads and seen his polls numbers rise accordingly. The first time every other candidate spoke on Wednesday night, they trained their sights on the billionaire.

“Mr. Bloomberg had policies in New York City of stop and frisk, which went after African American and Latino people in an outrageous way,” said Sanders, who got the debate’s first question about why he would be a better electability bet than the centrist ex-mayor. “That is not a way you’re going to grow voter turnout.”

But it was Warren who landed the biggest blow, with a clever bit of misdirection:

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.

Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women. And of supporting racist policies like redlining and stop and frisk. Look, I’ll support whoever the Democratic nominee is, but understand this: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.

Biden dinged Bloomberg over stop and frisk, too. Buttigieg wondered why Democrats seemed stuck between choosing a democratic socialist in Sanders or a former Republican billionaire in Bloomberg. Klobuchar blanched at the Bloomberg campaign’s suggestion that the other moderate candidates should get out of the race, that he was the only center-left candidate who could beat Sanders and win the nomination.

“I’ve been told many times to wait my turn and to step aside. And I’m not going to do that now,” Klobuchar said.

Pete Buttigieg went after Bernie Sanders

While everybody was happy to slam Bloomberg, Buttigieg also focused his attention on Sanders, who is actually the candidate leading the national polls and the one with the best chance of winning the 2020 Democratic nomination for the time being.

“We shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out,” Buttigieg said. “We can do better.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg as former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the Democratic debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 19, 2020.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Sanders parried back, referencing Buttigieg’s support among wealthier donors — 46 billionaires, specifically. The ex-South Bend mayor seemed indignant at Sanders’s insinuation that he didn’t have middle-class voters’ best interests at heart.

“Look, we’ve got to unite this country to deal with these issues,” Buttigieg said. “You’re not the only one who cares about the working class.”

The conversation then turned to social media and the behavior of Sanders’s most fervent online supporters. In particular, the Culinary Union in Nevada, which represents 60,000 workers in the hospitality industry and came out against Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan, said they’ve been harassed and threatened for opposing the senator’s health care bill.

Sanders said he disowned anybody mistreating others in the name of his campaign, but Buttigieg wouldn’t let it go. He tried to turn the issue into a fundamental critique of the independent senator’s whole leadership style.

“Leadership is also about how you motivate people to treat other people. I think you have to accept some responsibility and ask yourself what it is about your campaign in particular that seems to be motivating this behavior more than others,” Buttigieg said. “Because in order to turn the page on the Trump era, we’re going to need a president — not just a candidate who can win but a president who moves forward.”

Warren dragged everybody over their health care plans

Inevitably, health care and Medicare-for-all specifically came up early in the debate. The moderates, led by Buttigieg, criticized Sanders over his proposal’s expense and for not coming up with a detailed plan to pay for it. Sanders countered that the incremental reforms supported by Buttigieg and others are insufficient to the problem at hand, given the US spends so much money on health care now, and yet fails to cover everybody.

But it was Warren who landed the biggest punch, ticking through her opponents and the ways she thinks their health care plans fall short:

But we need to get everybody’s health care plan out here. Mayor Buttigieg really has a slogan that was thought up by his consultants to paper over a thin version of a plan that would leave millions of people unable to afford their health care. It’s not a plan, it’s a PowerPoint.

And Amy’s plan is even less. It’s like a Post-It note: Insert plan here.

Bernie has a good start. But instead of expanding and bringing in more people to help, instead his campaign relentlessly attacks everyone who asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make this work. And then his own advisers say, eh, probably won’t happen anyway.

Look, health care is a crisis in this country. My approach to this is we need as much help for as many people as quickly as possible. And bring in as many supporters as we can. And if we don’t get it all the first time, take the win and come back into the fight to ask for more.

Warren has proposed passing a public option in the first year of her presidency and then trying to pass a full version of single-payer health care later in her first term. It is a halfway point between what Buttigieg proposes and Sanders’s plan.

Political analysts have blamed her dip in the polls on the hard questions presented to her about her support for Medicare-for-all and how she would come up with a way to finance it. On Wednesday, after being defensive over health care for so long, Warren tried to go back on offense.

Biden and Warren criticized Bloomberg over stop and frisk

There were many attacks candidates levied against Bloomberg Wednesday — and several of them centered on his decision to promote the stop-and-frisk policy as New York City’s mayor.

As Vox’s Sean Collins has written, the policy, which was first implemented by Rudy Giuliani during his tenure as mayor, was adopted by Bloomberg, and empowered police to arbitrarily stop and question residents, disproportionately discriminating against people who were African American or Latino. The use of the practice in New York City has since been declared unconstitutional and widely criticized as a racist policy that did little to reduce crime.

Mike Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren speak during the Democratic debate on February 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Bloomberg has apologized for his role in implementing stop and frisk, though such apologies have conveniently emerged as he began his run for the presidency and taken place even as videos have surfaced of him touting its benefits. He tried, once more, to apologize on Wednesday: “Well, if I go back and look at my time in office, the one thing that I’m really worried about, embarrassed about, was how it turned out with stop and frisk.”

Both Warren and Biden, however, were among those who called out the hollowness of the gesture. “When the mayor says that he apologized, listen very closely to the apology,” Warren cautioned:

The language he used is about stop and frisk. It’s about how it turned out. Now, this isn’t about how it turned out, this is about what it was designed to do to begin with. It targeted communities of color. It targeted black and brown men from the beginning. And if you want to issue a real apology, then the apology has to start with the intent of the plan as it was put together and the willful ignorance day by day by day of admitting what was happening even as people protested in your own streets, shutting out the sounds of people telling you how your own policy was breaking their lives. You need a different apology here, Mr. Mayor.

Biden, too, jumped in and emphasized the steps the Obama administration took to push back on the use of stop and frisk.

Before the policy was deemed unconstitutional, the administration filed a brief signaling that it backed an independent monitor who would oversee changes in New York City:

The reason stop and frisk changed is because Barack Obama sent moderators to see what was going on. When we sent them there to say, this practice has to stop, the mayor thought it was a terrible idea we send them there. A terrible idea. Let’s get the facts straight. Let’s get the order straight. And it’s not whether he apologized or not, it’s the policy. The policy was abhorrent. And it was in fact a violation of every right people have. And we are the one, my — our administration sent in people to monitor it. And at the very time, the mayor argued against that. This idea that he figured out it was a bad idea, figured out it was a bad idea after we sent in monitors and said it must stop. Even then he continued the policy.

Sanders and Bloomberg faced tough transparency questions

With his move to the front of the 2020 field, Sanders has been dealing with more pointed questions over his health. He had a heart attack late last year while on the campaign trail (in Las Vegas, actually) and had to have stents put in.

His opponents and journalists have been pressing him to release more medical information, citing prior comments he made promising full transparency on his health. The 78-year-old senator would, after all, be the oldest person elected to his first term in the White House if he were to get the nomination and prevail in November.

The moderators asked Sanders whether the physician letters he’s released are sufficient, given his previous pledge to release his full medical records. His response:

I think we did. Let me tell you what happened. First of all, you’re right, and thank you, Las Vegas, for the excellent medical care I got in the hospital two days. And I think the one area maybe that Mayor Bloomberg and I shared, you have two stents as well. Well, we both have two stents, it’s a procedure that is done about a million times a year. So we released the full report of that heart attack.

Second of all, we released the full — my whole 29 years in the Capitol, the attending physician, all of my history, medical history. And furthermore, we released reports from two leading Vermont cardiologists who described my situation, and by the way, who said, “Bernie Sanders is more than able to deal with the stress and the vigor of being president of the United States.” They follow me around the campaign, three, four, five events a day; see how you’re doing compared to me.

Bloomberg got some very different pressure from his opponents and the moderators, who asked whether it was fair that people were already voting and yet he had not yet released tax returns documenting his vast wealth.

Bloomberg made it sound like it was out of his hands: He has so much money, you see, it takes a long time to compile his records for release.

“Fortunately, I make a lot of money and we do business all around the world and we are preparing it. The number of pages will probably be in the thousands of pages,” Bloomberg said. “We will put out this one. It tells everybody everything they need to know about every investment that I make and where the money goes. The biggest item is all the money I give away, and we list that every single donation I make. And you can get that from our foundation anytime you want.”

Warren hit hard on prior sexual harassment allegations Bloomberg has faced

In one of the most stunning moments of the night, Warren confronted Bloomberg directly and repeatedly about the nondisclosure agreements that past employees have signed regarding allegations of a hostile work environment. When moderator Hallie Jackson initially asked Bloomberg to respond to the accusations he’s faced, including ones about making sexually suggestive remarks to women in the workplace, he dodged.

There were plenty of other women who worked at his company and foundation that he’d helped build successful careers, he emphasized, deploying a common tactic those who have been accused have used in the past to evade responsibility for their alleged behavior.

Warren, however, wasn’t having it. After Bloomberg failed to answer the question, she pointedly asked him again.

“I hope you heard his defense. ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’” she said. “Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements? So we can hear their side of the story?”

Bloomberg dodged, again. “We have very few nondisclosure agreements,” he said.

But Warren kept calling him out. “How many is that?” she said repeatedly. “Some is how many?”

Bloomberg, despite multiple attempts to answer the question, wasn’t really able to provide a satisfactory response. In his defense, he said, these agreements were entered into with the agreement of both parties — and, at most, they involved employees who were concerned with a joke he’d made. He never directly committed to releasing the women from the NDAs they are still bound by.

The exchange, which grew increasingly tense, culminated in Warren emphasizing how the allegations facing Bloomberg posed an obstacle to his electability — and made it tough to draw a contrast between him and President Trump, who’s been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 20 women.

“We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against,” she said.

Bloomberg didn’t have much to say in return.

Sanders fended off attacks over “democratic socialism”

Bloomberg also tried to take the electability question to Sanders, coming off an exchange between Buttigieg and Sanders over raising taxes to pay for their policy ideas.

“I can’t think of a way to make it easier for Donald Trump to get reelected than listening to this conversation. This is ridiculous,” Bloomberg said. “We’re not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism and it just didn’t work.”

Moderators brought the question to Sanders, citing a recent poll that found many voters say they’re uncomfortable with the “socialist” label.

“What was the result of that poll? Who was winning?” Sanders asked, quickly pointing out that he was, in fact, in the lead.

Then he made the case that what America has right now is “socialism for the rich,” benefiting Bloomberg and other wealthy people at the expense of the working and middle classes:

Let’s talk about democratic socialism. Not communism, Mr. Bloomberg. That’s a cheap shot.

Let’s talk about what goes on in countries like Denmark, where, people correctly pointed out, they have a much higher quality of life [...] than we do. What are we talking about? We are living in many ways in a socialist society right now. The problem is, as Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us, we have socialism for the very rich. Rugged individualism for the poor.

When Donald Trump gets $800 million in tax breaks and subsidies to build luxury condominiums, that’s socialism for the rich. We have to subsidize Walmart workers on Medicaid and food stamps because the wealthiest family in America pays starvation wages; that’s socialism for the rich. I believe in democratic socialism for working people. Not billionaires. Health care for all.

If Sanders gets the nomination, Trump and Republicans will try to paint him as a leftist out of touch with American values. He’s already starting to workshop his response to those attacks, practice made all the easier with a billionaire like Bloomberg onstage.