Bloomberg en­ters the spot­light and the fray

Ben­e­fit­ing from chaos, Demo­cratic can­di­date emerges as se­ri­ous threat and tar­get for fresh scru­tiny

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL SCHERER

The 12th-rich­est per­son in the world de­cided to bet more than $500 mil­lion late last year on the long-shot no­tion that Democrats would defy his­tory and fail to el­e­vate a front-run­ner af­ter Iowa’s and New Hamp­shire’s nom­i­nat­ing con­tests.

Three months later, Mike Bloomberg’s jack­pot is about to come due, as the former New York mayor, who has yet to ap­pear on a bal­lot, emerges from the chaos of early Fe­bru­ary as a le­git­i­mate con­tender for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion.

Bloomberg has ben­e­fited from a cas­cade of good luck — a botched and in­con­clu­sive Iowa cau­cuses process, the col­lapse of the former vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den’s polling dom­i­nance and the Demo­cratic Party chair­man’s de­ci­sion to pro­vide the mayor a path to the next de­bate. His po­ten­tial to re­shape the race has led his Demo­cratic op­po­nents, as well as Pres­i­dent Trump, to be­gin fo­cus­ing on him in earnest, even though he is not con­test­ing Ne­vada and South Carolina, the next two states to vote.

“You have a bil­lion­aire lit­er­ally try­ing to buy an elec­tion, and that’s not the pol­i­tics we be­lieve in,” said Ari Rabin-havt, deputy cam­paign man­ager for Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-VT.). San­ders called Bloomberg’s self-funded can­di­dacy “pre­cisely what the cor­rup­tion of the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is all about” dur­ing a Satur­day stop in Dover, N.H.

Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D

Mass.) echoed that sen­ti­ment in a dis­cus­sion Sun­day with re­porters on her cam­paign bus in Rochester, N.H. “Are we go­ing to be an Amer­ica where you’ve got to be a bil­lion­aire or suck up to bil­lion­aires to be­come the party’s nom­i­nee?” she asked.

With the ex­cep­tion of San­ders, who fin­ished strong in the Iowa cau­cuses and won Tues­day’s New Hamp­shire pri­mary, Bloomberg’s ri­vals are head­ing to­ward the big­gest vot­ing day of the pri­mary — Su­per Tues­day on March 3 — with no clear mo­men­tum. Bi­den and War­ren have been hob­bled with two em­bar­rass­ing losses. Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete But­tigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-minn.), who fin­ished sec­ond and third, re­spec­tively, in New Hamp­shire, face the chal­lenge of win­ning over non­white vot­ers who have not yet em­braced their cam­paigns.

Bloomberg, who has been dom­i­nat­ing the air­waves un­chal­lenged in many states, said Wed­nes­day that he does not want to en­gage di­rectly with his ri­vals at the mo­ment. He is not, how­ever, above more oblique ref­er­ences.

“We don’t need a revolution. We want evo­lu­tion,” he told a mostly white crowd of hun­dreds at a rally in Ten­nessee on Wed­nes­day, a nod to San­ders. “And we need a nom­i­nee who can de­liver it.”

Yet it be­came clear in re­cent days that the scru­tiny is com­ing from all di­rec­tions.

As New Hamp­shire vot­ers went to the polls Tues­day, the Bi­den cam­paign joined with Trump in try­ing to spread around a 2015 au­dio clip in which Bloomberg de­fended the tar­geted frisk­ing of black and Latino New York­ers dur­ing his time as mayor, a pol­icy he has since re­nounced and apol­o­gized for pro­mot­ing.

“Ninety-five per­cent of your mur­ders, mur­der­ers and mur­der vic­tims fit one M.O. You can just take the de­scrip­tion, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops,” he was recorded say­ing at Aspen In­sti­tute event.

The quotes caught fire af­ter they were posted on­line Mon­day by a lib­eral pod­cast host, though the Repub­li­can op­po­si­tion re­search firm Amer­ica Ris­ing claimed Tues­day that it had pre­vi­ously flagged the clip and that there were oth­ers like it to come. Bi­den’s di­rec­tor of African Amer­i­can en­gage­ment, Trey Baker, emailed the au­dio around to al­lies on Mon­day night.

“Feel free to share with your net­works,” Baker wrote in the email, which was ob­tained by The Washington Post. Sy­mone San­ders, an ad­viser to Bi­den, went on Fox News to call the clip “sad” and “de­spi­ca­ble.” “Mayor Bloomberg is un­vet­ted,” she later warned.

Trump retweeted and then deleted the footage on his ac­count Tues­day morn­ing, and his cam­paign man­ager, Brad Parscale, sub­se­quently posted an­other clip of Bloomberg de­fend­ing “stop and frisk” with the hash­tag #Bloombergi­saracist. As pres­i­dent, Trump has been a vo­cal de­fender of stop-and-frisk polic­ing, even an­nounc­ing in 2018 that he wanted the Justice Depart­ment to en­cour­age the prac­tice in cities.

“I don’t think those words re­flect how I led the most di­verse city in the na­tion,” Bloomberg said in a brief news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day. “And I apol­o­gized for the prac­tice and the pain that it caused.”

His cam­paign also an­nounced the en­dorse­ments of three more black law­mak­ers, Reps. Lucy McBath (D- Ga.) and Gre­gory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), and Del. Stacey Plas­kett (D-vir­gin Is­lands).

Bloomberg’s ad­vis­ers ex­pect more in­com­ing over the com­ing weeks as his pro­file rises. Ri­vals have pre­vi­ously taken is­sue with his past po­si­tions on fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tory re­form, the al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment at his epony­mous me­dia com­pany and his strong sup­port for charter schools.

“It be­came crys­tal clear to­day that we are the op­po­nent that Trump least wants to face,” Bloomberg ad­viser Howard Wolf­son said in re­sponse to the Trump tweet Tues­day. “The en­tire ap­pa­ra­tus has en­gaged against us, which is a sign that we are do­ing well.”

Ri­val cam­paigns have also be­gun to raise con­cerns about whether Bloomberg’s strength could help speed San­ders’s path to the nom­i­na­tion by fur­ther split­ting the mod­er­ate vote in the party. Un­der Demo­cratic rules, can­di­dates can only ac­crue del­e­gates if they clear 15 per­cent sup­port thresh­olds, which are mea­sured on both statewide and con­gres­sional district lev­els.

Two na­tional polls this week, by Mon­mouth Univer­sity and Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity, found that San­ders was the only can­di­date com­fort­ably clear­ing that bar, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that he would win a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of del­e­gates if his ri­vals re­main bunched up be­low 10 per­cent.

“Right now, it looks like he is un­der­min­ing his stated goal for get­ting in the race, which is pre­vent­ing Bernie San­ders from be­ing the nom­i­nee,” said a se­nior strate­gist for a ri­val Demo­cratic cam­paign, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss strat­egy. “Just as we do see mod­er­ates start­ing to surge, whether it is Pete or Amy, he is step­ping in to stop the mo­men­tum.”

Bloomberg’s aides, who pri­vately share the same con­cern about the mod­er­ate vote split­ting in a way that helps San­ders, said the bur­den is on other can­di­dates “to get out” if they have failed to per­form in the early con­tests. The aides spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss strat­egy.

“Every­body has got to make a de­ci­sion,” Bloomberg said Wed­nes­day about the dilemma pre­sented by a crowded field. “You have to bal­ance be­tween what you think is right for the coun­try/party, to get a can­di­date to beat Don­ald Trump, and on the other hand your per­sonal as­pi­ra­tions.”

Be­hind the scenes, Bloomberg, who is worth more than $50 bil­lion, has stepped up his de­bate prepa­ra­tions, which be­gan last year, as he faces what is likely to be the next ma­jor test of his cam­paign. He needs one more partyap­proved na­tional poll over a 10 per­cent thresh­old be­fore Tues­day to qual­ify for the Feb. 19 de­bate in Las Ve­gas.

The Bloomberg strat­egy for win­ning the nom­i­na­tion de­pends heav­ily on him earn­ing the sup­port of non­white vot­ers in the March pri­mary states, where most of the party’s del­e­gates will be awarded. Those vot­ers con­sis­tently voiced sup­port for Bi­den in polling last year, and Bi­den’s aides have ex­pressed con­fi­dence in re­cent weeks that they will be able to main­tain the sup­port, de­spite the New Hamp­shire and Iowa set­backs.

Demo­cratic strate­gists un­af­fil­i­ated with the cur­rent cam­paigns say the next big ques­tion for Bloomberg is whether his grow­ing sup­port, which has been buf­feted by a mas­sive in­vest­ment in tele­vi­sion ad­ver­tis­ing, will con­vert into a base of vot­ers who re­tain real en­thu­si­asm for his cam­paign. Polls con­tinue to show Bloomberg trail­ing other Demo­cratic con­tenders in fa­vor­a­bil­ity.

“He needed to draw an in­side straight, and so far he has,” Barack Obama’s former cam­paign man­ager Jim Messina said. “The ques­tion is: When it is snow­ing in a Mid­west­ern state on March 3, are vot­ers go­ing to get up and wade through the snow to vote for Mike Bloomberg?”

In broad­cast and dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing, Bloomberg has al­ready spent more than $344 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to Ad­ver­tis­ing An­a­lyt­ics, a track­ing firm.

Bloomberg ar­gued that he needs to spend the money be­cause he got in the race so late. “I’m not try­ing to buy the elec­tion,” he said.

That ad­ver­tis­ing in­cludes a range of dif­fer­ent ap­proaches, from con­ven­tional spots at­tack­ing Trump on health care and boast­ing of Bloomberg’s work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Obama to vi­ral so­cial me­dia at­tempts to at­tack Trump in a space where he is of­ten dom­i­nant.

One re­cent so­cial me­dia spot re­dubbed a Trump ad­dress from the White House to make it look like he was just re­peat­ing the words “lie” and “un­fair” over an elec­tronic beat. The cam­paign su­per­im­posed graph­ics on the video of a danc­ing gin­ger­bread cookie with its legs on fire. The 2 minute and 30 sec­ond video has been viewed more than 2.1 mil­lion times on Twit­ter.

Al­most to a per­son, at­ten­dees at his rally in Chat­tanooga said they were fa­mil­iar with his paid ad­ver­tis­ing.

“I love his ads,” said An­nette Allen, a voter from Sig­nal Moun­tain, Tenn., who said her only pri­or­ity was find­ing a Demo­cratic can­di­date to beat Trump. “My vote is for sale.”

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg speaks to sup­port­ers in Jan­uary dur­ing a Washington cam­paign event. His past com­ments on stop-and-frisk polic­ing were crit­i­cized this week.

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg waits to be in­tro­duced by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who has en­dorsed him, at a Jan­uary cam­paign event.

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