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.
"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."