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Finley: Bloomberg flops in debate debut

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

When the curtain pulled back Wednesday night on Mike Bloomberg’s first appearance on a Democratic debate stage, the candidate who was supposed to steal the show froze in the footlights.

Bloomberg flopped like a carp. After spending $400 million on a carefully crafted media campaign that rocketed him quickly to near front-runner status in the nominating race, Bloomberg’s first unscripted appearance couldn’t have gone worse.

The former New York mayor and mega-billionaire spoke just once in the first 20 minutes, and only sparingly for the rest of the two hour exchange. For most of the night he stood silently while the other five shouted themselves to hoarseness.

Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, left, speaks as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., gestures during a Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas.

And he let Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, desperate to revive her fading campaign, eat him alive. She opened the debate with this devastating line: “We’re running against a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump; I’m talking about Michael Bloomberg.”

A moderator later asked Bloomberg about those crude remarks, and about reports that his company had settled several harassment lawsuits. Bloomberg could not find his voice, offering the lame defense that he’d hired a lot of women both as mayor and as a media mogul, and they seemed happy.

That’s when Warren pounced. “Listen to his defense, ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’” Warren said, nailing Bloomberg to the floor. She then challenged him to release the women who’d sued him and his company from non-disclosure agreements signed as part of their settlements.

“Women are being muzzled by you,” she said. “Will you release them from the non-disclosure agreements?”

Bloomberg rolled his eyes and mumbled an incoherent response. He was clearly not prepared to defend an attack he must have seen coming.

The same was true earlier in the debate when he was called out for the stop-and-frisk crime-fighting policies he instituted while New York mayor. Again, his answer was evasive and fell well short of putting the issue to rest.

Bloomberg was reluctant to join the feisty, frenetic scrapping of the other five candidates, some of whom are in the Hail Mary phase of their campaigns. And the NBC moderators often seemed to forget he was the reason many viewers had tuned into what otherwise promised to be just one more in a string of unmemorable Democratic face-offs. Despite his star billing, his air time was decidedly less than that of the others.

Bloomberg briefly came alive 90 minutes into the debate during an exchange with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders over whether corporations should have to give large chunks of their assets to their employees.

“I can’t think of any better way to get Donald Trump elected than listening to this conversation,” Bloomberg said “We’re not going to do away with capitalism. We tried that. It didn’t work. It’s called communism.”

Then he added, in reference to Sanders, “The best-known socialist in the country is a millionaire with three houses.”

He's right. But defending wealth and capitalism feels like a losing strategy for winning the nomination from a Democratic party that is positioned at the furthest left in its history.

That was it for Bloomberg in terms of highlights. By the end of the night, his opponents grew tired of targeting him and turned back to slicing up each other.

The lackluster turn calls into question what was perceived to be Bloomberg’s strength: His toughness and ability to go toe-to-toe with President Donald Trump.

Trump is a vicious debater. If the likes of Warren can leave Bloomberg speechless on the stage, imagine what Trump would do with him.