Bloomberg makes Democratic debate stage for first time

Michael Bloomberg has qualified for the Nevada Democratic debate. His heavy TV ad campaign has earned him 19% of national support, placing him second among candidates, according to a recent poll. But critics are accusing the billionaire of trying to "buy the election." 

James H. Wallace/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg gives his thumbs-up after speaking during a campaign event at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, Virginia, Feb. 15, 2020. Mr. Bloomberg has qualified for his first Democratic presidential debate on Feb. 19, 2020.

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg has qualified for the upcoming Democratic presidential debate, marking the first time he'll stand alongside the rivals he has so far avoided by bypassing the early voting states and using his personal fortune to define himself through television ads.

A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll published Tuesday shows Mr. Bloomberg with 19% support nationally in the Democratic nominating contest.

The former New York City mayor, who launched his presidential campaign in November, will appear in Wednesday's debate in Las Vegas alongside former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Fellow billionaire and philanthropist Tom Steyer is still hoping to qualify.

Mr. Bloomberg's campaign said that it was seeing "a groundswell of support across the country" and that qualifying for Wednesday's debate "is the latest sign that Mike's plan and ability to defeat Donald Trump is resonating with more Americans."

"Mike is looking forward to joining the other Democratic candidates on stage and making the case for why he's the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump and unite the country," Bloomberg campaign manager Kevin Sheekey said in a statement.

The Democratic National Committee recently changed its rules for how a candidate qualifies for the debate, opening the door for Mr. Bloomberg to be on stage and drawing the ire of some candidates who dropped out of the race for failing to make prior stages. The candidates were previously required to receive a certain number of campaign contributions to qualify, but Mr. Bloomberg, who is worth an estimated $60 billion, is not taking donations.

The prime-time event will be a stark departure from Mr. Bloomberg's highly choreographed campaign. He's poured more than $300 million into television advertising, a way to define himself for voters without facing criticism. While he's campaigned in more than two dozen states, he does not take questions from voters and delivers a standard stump speech that lasts less than 15 minutes, often reading from a teleprompter.

He encounters the occasional protester, including one who jumped on stage recently in Chattanooga, Tennessee, yelling, "This is not democracy. This is a plutocracy!" But his friendly crowds usually quickly overwhelm the protesters with chants of "We like Mike!"

Mr. Bloomberg is likely to face far more direct fire in the debate. His fellow Democratic contenders have stepped up their attacks against him in recent days, decrying him for trying to "buy the election" and criticizing his support of the "stop-and-frisk" tactic while mayor of New York City that led police to target mostly black and Hispanic men for searches.

Mr. Bloomberg has barely crossed paths on the trail with his fellow Democrats. He decided to skip the first four voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina in favor of focusing on the 14 states that vote on March 3 and the contests that come afterward.

He rarely mentions his rivals by name, though his campaign is centered on the idea that none of them can beat President Donald Trump. And Mr. Bloomberg, more than anyone, has predicated his campaign on a potential Biden collapse. He's been aggressive in targeting African American voters in the South, a core demographic for Mr. Biden's campaign.

Mr. Biden said he doesn't think "you can buy an election."

"I'm going to get a chance to debate him on everything from redlining to stop and frisk to a whole range of other things," Mr. Biden told reporters last week.

The poll released Tuesday shows Mr. Sanders leading in the Democratic primary contest, at 31% support nationally. After Mr. Bloomberg at 19%, Mr. Biden is at 15%, Ms. Warren at 12%, Ms. Klobuchar at 9%, and Mr. Buttigieg at 8%. Mr. Steyer is at 2%, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is at less than 1%, with 5% undecided.

The telephone survey of 527 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents was conducted by the Marist Poll at the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.4 percentage points.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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