Democrats lay into each other on debate stage as candidates face crucial phase in primary fight

Democratic presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders has railed against billionaires and their influence on politics for years. Sanders will face off on the debate stage against one of the world's richest men, the rapidly rising Michael Bloomberg. By Maeve Reston, CNN

(CNN) -- With time running out in the race for delegates, the leading Democratic presidential candidates turned on one another Wednesday night with fiery attacks, underscoring the desperate need for candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden to deliver standout performances in order to survive the next few contests -- and often doing it at the expense of Michael Bloomberg.

In the most negative debate of the 2020 cycle, it was the newcomer who took the most incoming, with the five longer-term candidates offering scathing critiques of Bloomberg's campaign spending, his record on policing policy as mayor of New York and misogynistic comments he allegedly made about women at his company in the 1980s and 1990s.

During the two-hour NBC debate at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas, Klobuchar, a senator from Minnesota, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Buttigieg repeatedly sparred over experience. Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, framed Buttigieg's health care plan as being like a "PowerPoint" presentation and compared Klobuchar's to a "Post-it Note." Buttigieg described Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Bloomberg as deeply polarizing figures who would lead the Democratic Party to defeat in November. Bloomberg clashed over ideology with Sanders and Warren, describing one of their ideas as a tried-and-failed tenant of communism, and rolling his eyes in exasperation when he was confronted by Warren.

But many of the night's most memorable moments grew out of Warren's fierce, take-no-prisoners posture toward many of her rivals. Making no effort to conceal her contempt for the billionaire candidate standing beside her, Warren set the tone in the opening minutes of the debate when she called for a more fulsome apology from Bloomberg for his alleged past comments about women who worked for him and demanded that he release women who had sued his company for sexual harassment or gender discrimination from the nondisclosure agreements they had signed.

"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," Warren said, referring to quotes attributed to Bloomberg that were circulated in a "Wit and Wisdom" booklet handed out at his company. It's not clear that Bloomberg ever made those comments, according to a CNN fact check.

When pressed by moderators to explain the comments attributed to him in the booklet and several lawsuits, which were detailed in a Washington Post article earlier this week, Bloomberg said he didn't have any tolerance for the kind of behavior that the #MeToo movement exposed. He then attempted to pivot by touting the number of women he has elevated to senior roles, noting his company was voted one of the best places to work.

"I hope you heard his defense: 'I've been nice to some women,' " Warren retorted as Bloomberg rolled his eyes. "That just doesn't cut it. ... We need to know what's lurking out there."

In a lengthy exchange that was clearly uncomfortable for the former New York mayor, Warren repeatedly pressed Bloomberg to say how many nondisclosure agreements he had asked women to sign for sexual harassment or gender discrimination suits (he eventually said "very few").

"None of them accuse me of doing anything other than -- maybe they didn't like a joke I told," Bloomberg replied, as some in the crowd audibly gasped or groaned. He added that the women had signed the agreements because they wanted to keep the matter "quiet."

"They signed those agreements and we'll live with it," Bloomberg said. ("Come on," an exasperated Biden said in the background).

"I just want to be clear. Some is how many?" Warren continued, pressing him as the moderators let the exchange play out.

"And when you say they signed (the agreements) and they wanted them, if they wish now to speak out and tell their side of the story about what it is they alleged, that's now OK with you? You're releasing them on television tonight?" she asked.

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"I'm simply not going to end these agreements because they were made consensually and they have every right to expect they will stay private," Bloomberg said.

"Are the women bound by being muzzled by you? You could release them from that immediately," Warren persisted. "Because understand, this is not just a question of the mayor's character. This is also a question about electability. 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. That's not what we do as Democrats."

Biden joined Warren in demanding greater transparency from Bloomberg: "Look, let's get something straight here. It's easy. All the mayor has to do is say, 'You are released from the nondisclosure agreement.' Period."

"You think the women in fact were ready to say, 'I don't want anybody to know about what you did to me?' That's not how it works," the former vice president continued. "The way it works is they say, 'Look, this is what you did to me, and the mayor comes along and his attorneys say, I will give you this amount of money if you promise you'll never say anything. That's how it works," Biden said to applause.

Bloomberg in the hot seat

Bloomberg repeatedly clashed with Warren and Sanders, not just over ideology -- but also over the more than $400 million the billionaire has spent on television ads thus far.

The former New York mayor was asked whether Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, could win in November.

"I don't think there's any chance of the senator beating President Trump," Bloomberg said, criticizing Sanders' embrace of "Medicare for All," which would get rid of private health insurance and replace it with a government-run system.

"You don't start out by saying I've got 160 million people -- I'm going to take away the insurance plan that they love. That's just not a way that you go and start building the coalition that the Sanders camp thinks that they can do," Bloomberg said. "If he goes and is the candidate, we will have Donald Trump for another four years. And we can't stand that."

Sanders, who got the first opportunity to take on Bloomberg, critiqued his former embrace of the controversial "stop and frisk" policing policy in New York City, which disproportionately targeted blacks and Latinos. Bloomberg began apologizing for the policy in 2019; his aides say he realized it was a mistake during his time in office.

Sanders said the policies went after blacks and Latinos in "an outrageous way."

"That is not a way you're going to grow voter turnout," Sanders said. "What our movement is about is bringing working-class people together -- black and white and Latino, Native American, Asian American -- around an agenda that works for all of us and not just the billionaire class."

Sanders also took issue with Bloomberg's wealth, defending his past statement that billionaires shouldn't exist.

"We have a grotesque and immoral distribution of wealth and income. Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. That's wrong," Sanders said. "That's immoral. That should not be the case, when we have a half a million people sleeping out on the street; where we have kids who cannot afford to go to college; when we have 45 million people dealing with student debt."

Bloomberg replied that he had earned his wealth by working hard.

"I can't speak for all billionaires. All I know is I've been very lucky; made a lot of money and I'm giving it all away to make this country better. And a good chunk of it goes to the Democratic Party," he said.

The sustained criticism from the candidates Wednesday night was an intense entry to the race for Bloomberg, who has been holding campaign events without facing the heat of the debate stage as the other candidates have for months. Bloomberg chose to forgo the four early state contests in favor of running a more national primary campaign dependent on the Super Tuesday states, which will vote in March.

But as much as the other candidates have mocked Bloomberg's spending, it has catapulted him into contention. He leapfrogged Biden and Buttigieg in a new national poll from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist, landing in second place, with 19%, behind Sanders, who drew 31%.

A tense night

While Bloomberg was the focus of many barbs, the other candidates didn't spare each other from withering criticism throughout the night.

Warren, who is attempting to mount a comeback as she has fallen to low double digits in the polls, described Buttigieg and Klobuchar's health care plans as thin and insufficient.

"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," she said, as Buttigieg raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Amy's plan is even less. It's like a Post-it Note, 'Insert Plan Here.' "

Warren went on to criticize Sanders' handling of Medicare for All, calling it "a good start" but charging that "his campaign relentlessly attacks everyone who asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make this work."

"Then his own advisers say, 'Yeah, probably won't happen anyway,' " Warren said. "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."

The long-running rivalry between Buttigieg and Klobuchar was on full display in Nevada, with Buttigieg looking to build momentum after his first-place finish in Iowa and second-place showing in New Hampshire.

The former mayor seized the opportunity to call out Klobuchar for not being able to name the President of Mexico in a recent interview with Telemundo, arguing that misstep was proof that Washington experience is overrated.

Klobuchar had explained the moment as "momentary forgetfulness" and "error."

"I think having a president that maybe is humble and is able to admit that here ... wouldn't be a bad thing," she said, referencing Trump.

"You're on the committee that oversees border security," Buttigieg interjected. "You're on the committee that does trade. You're literally in the part of the committee that's overseeing these things."

Klobuchar turned sharply on Buttigieg: "Are you -- are you trying to say that I'm dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?"

"I'm saying you shouldn't trivialize that knowledge," Buttigieg replied without backing down. "This is a race for president."

Warren came to Klobuchar's defense, calling Buttigieg's criticism of her "not right."

"Missing a name all by itself does not indicate that you do not understand what's going on. And I just think this is unfair," Warren said.

Later, Buttigieg and Klobuchar clashed again over the importance of Washington experience, when he noted that Klobuchar had voted to confirm the head of Customs and Border Protection, one of the officials who oversaw family separations at the border.

"I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete," Klobuchar replied. "But let me tell you what it's like to be in the arena."

She defended her vote: "That official that you are referring to was supported by about half the Democrats, including some in this room. And I will say this: He was highly recommended by the Obama officials," Klobuchar said.

The Minnesota senator added that she was proud of her work on immigration: "You have not been in the arena doing that work. You've memorized a bunch of talking points," she said.

"You know, maybe leading a diverse city that was facing ruin doesn't sound like the arena to you," Buttigieg responded. "I'm used to senators telling mayors that senators are more important than mayors, but this is the arena, too. You don't have to be in Washington to matter."

Buttigieg also questioned whether Sanders was doing enough to keep his supporters from spreading vitriol and harassing others online.

Sanders noted he has more than 10 million followers on Twitter. "If there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack trade union leaders, I disown those people, they are not part of our movement," Sanders said, referring to recent attacks on leaders of the powerful Culinary Union in Las Vegas, which has taken issue with his health care plan because its workers would lose the generous benefits it had negotiated.

Buttigieg, who is looking to pick up the support of culinary workers who dislike Sanders' plan, said he believes the senator disowns the attacks.

"But at a certain point," Buttigieg continued, "You've got to ask yourself: Why did this pattern arise? Why is it especially the case among your supporters?"

"I don't think it is especially the case," Sanders replied. He noted that women on his campaign have experienced "ugly sexist, racist attacks" on social media.

The Vermont senator also cited Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including social media troll farms that had worked to affect voters' moods during the campaign: "I'm not saying that's happening. But it would not shock me."

This story has been updated with further developments.

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