Mike Bloomberg has a plan to turn around his debate fortunes — hammer Bernie Sanders

Billionaire ex-New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has a plan to improve his performance after what was widely panned as a subpar showing during last week's Democratic primary debate. The strategy: make Tuesday's contest all about Bernie Sanders.

A top Bloomberg campaign official who spoke with NBC News said the debate "is definitely going to be about Bernie Sanders" after the Democratic front-runner scored a commanding victory in Nevada and has skyrocketed ahead of the rest of the field in recent national polling.

"It's everyone's last opportunity to really hold him accountable and really challenge his record," the aide said of the last debate before the pivotal Super Tuesday contest. "And so we have to take on the front-runner on that stage. And that's Bernie."

The Bloomberg campaign is predicting that with Sanders continuing to gain momentum, much of Tuesday's debate will focus on the Vermont senator rather than their own candidate. But the aide said: "It's hard to assess what other candidates are going to go after."

Bloomberg's campaign has already made clear how the candidate plans to target Sanders at the debate, releasing an ad Monday highlighting Sanders' record on gun control as well as highlighting his comments from a Sunday interview with CBS's "60 Minutes" in which he praised former longtime Cuban strongman Fidel Castro's early "literacy program" while condemning his "authoritarian nature."

"We saw a lot in [last week's] debate talking about health care again. Guns did not come up," Sabrina Singh, a senior national spokesperson for the Bloomberg campaign, said on Fox News Monday. She said that Bloomberg, who founded and funds the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, can draw a "big point of contrast" with Sanders on the issue.

Sanders, meanwhile, has continued to take swipes at Bloomberg's big spending.

"South Carolina is in five days. Then it’s Super Tuesday, where Mike Bloomberg is waiting with his billions," Sanders tweeted. "Victory is in sight. We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing."

Bloomberg is looking to turn the tables after his first debate appearance last week was marred by blistering attacks from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and other rivals on racial and gender issues as well as his considerable wealth. Bloomberg's implementation of stop-and-frisk, the numerous nondisclosure agreements his company has with female employees who had alleged mistreatment, and remarks he was said to have made about women all came under fire.

"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," Warren said. "Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another."

Bloomberg's answers, particularly on stop-and-frisk and the nondisclosure agreements, which the ex-mayor downplayed by saying they involved women who "didn’t like a joke I told," did not go over well on stage. After Warren demanded that Bloomberg release all of the women from the binding agreements, Bloomberg released three women days later that he said were the only ones made with women to address complaints about comments he had made. He also said his company, Bloomberg L.P., would no longer use such agreements to handle similar claims in the future.

"Obviously, this was Mike's first debate" in more than a decade, Dan Kanninen, Bloomberg's states director, said during a Monday conference call with reporters when asked about Bloomberg's performance last week, adding that his rivals have "perfected the art of the attack."

"Can't overstate what it's like to be on that stage" after not being on for more than a decade," he said, noting that Tuesday's debate "needs to be about one candidate — Bernie Sanders."

Heading into last week's debate, Bradley Tusk, a businessman and longtime Bloomberg adviser, ran the debate prep process. The campaign declined to divulge details on how or if the preparation process has changed.

Bloomberg's campaign doesn't believe he left the stage empty-handed, however, as advisers have pointed to an exchange where Bloomberg said of Sanders: "The best-known socialist in the country is a millionaire with three homes" as being a strong point.

Reviews of Bloomberg's mayoral debate performances over the years showed a candidate who was figuring out his way on stage early on to one who became much more aggressive as the years went on. And with a massive war chest — one that so far has allowed for more than half a billion in spending on ads — it seems unlikely that one or even two poor debate showings could tank his presidential bid.

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El precandidato presidencial Mike Bloomberg habla durante un evento de campaña en Hardywood Park Craft Brewery en Richmond, Virginia, el sábado 15 de febrero de 2020. (James H. Wallace/Richmond Times-Dispatch vía AP)
A Mike Bloomberg supporter holds up a sign as protesters gather outside Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, where Democratic presidential candidate Bloomberg was speaking during a campaign event at the brewery in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. (James H. Wallace/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is joined on stage by supporters during his campaign launch of "Mike for Black America," at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg speaks during a campaign event at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. (James H. Wallace/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, right, is introduced by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner during his campaign launch of "Mike for Black America," at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks during his campaign launch of "Mike for Black America," at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg greets former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Purdue as he arrives to speak at a campaign event in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg arrives to speak at a campaign event in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Mike Bloomberg 2020 election campaign logo, graphic element on white
Former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Purdue addresses the crowd before introducing Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to speak at a campaign event in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks to a crowd at Footnote cafe in Winston Salem, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. This is the first day of early voting in North Carolina. (Walt Unks/The Winston-Salem Journal via AP)
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks to supporters during his visit in Greensboro, N.C., on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (Khadejeh Nikouyeh/News & Record via AP)
People lineup outside of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center during a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg Mike Bloomberg, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. (C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, left, signs autographs as Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, right, joins him onstage at a campaign event Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Campaign worker Wendell McCoy hands out signs at a campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg talks to supporters Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020 in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg addresses supporters during a campaign stop in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks to reporters after a campaign event, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Burlington, Vt. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
A supporter of Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wears an "I Like Mike" button during a campaign event, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Burlington, Vt. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks during a campaign event, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Burlington, Vt. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, left, speaks to State Rep. Samuel Young, center, and State Rep. Daniel Noyes at Kestral Coffee Roasters, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Burlington, Vt. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, left, with Portland, Maine Mayor Kate Snyder, center, greets a patron at Becky's Diner, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Democratic presidential candidate, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at the ​U.S. Conference of Mayors' Winter Meeting, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Michael Bloomberg hablando en un acto en Tulsa, Oklahoma, el 19 de enero del 2020. Bloomberg se postuló a la nominación presidencial demócrata y realiza una campaña poco ortodoxa, ignorando a sus rivales en las primarias y apuntando todos sus cañones a Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, left, talks with Rev. Robert Turner, right, during a service at the Vernon American Methodist Episcopal Church in Tulsa, Okla., Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks to supporters Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks to supporters Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Democratic Presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg waits to speaks during a rally Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Democratic presidential candidate and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks with supporters at the Bounce Innovation Hub, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Akron, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Democratic presidential candidate, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, walks upstairs at a coffee shop in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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"There's a faction of the Democratic Party that wants Bloomberg to recover," Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins told NBC News. "They want someone to be able to consolidate around in kind of an anti-Sanders, more centrist candidate. Bloomberg certainly fits that. And then with his resources, he's a complete game-changer. People can will him to recover."

"I think the question is can he show empathy and is he going to be able to fight back against Elizabeth Warren, who seems determined to attack him and not attack Sen. Sanders," he added, saying Bloomberg needs more prepared answers on stop-and-frisk and the NDAs and explain what a Bloomberg administration would actually look like.

And Bloomberg is going to have to display to voters that the guy they're seeing in the blitz of paid media and promotion is the same guy on that stage Tuesday night, Hopkins said.

"His Twitter presence and social media presence has been so strong, but he looks so weak on stage that to some degree he looked like a Twitter gangster, like a tough guy on Twitter who in person, didn't really have the receipts," Hopkins said.

Neal Kwatra, a Democratic strategist who worked with Bloomberg's mayoral administration, said the billionaire can recover from last week, but it won't be based solely on debates — particularly since he's coming off one "where the whole conversation has been about how bad he did."

"No one's going to be surprised if you see a more combative Bloomberg," he said. "I think part of the challenge for him is this forum doesn't lend itself to his skillset, and so no matter how prepared and good he is on that debate stage, I don't think it's going to change the sort of calculus of this race unless he puts his money behind wanting to change the calculus of this race [and spending big against Sanders.] And even then, it might frankly be too late, but I don't think he has really any shot unless that's a part of the equation."

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