Among the many takeaways from Wednesday night’s Democratic debate in Nevada is that Mike Bloomberg’s nationally televised, teleprompter-less debut as a presidential candidate was an unmitigated disaster. Forced to confront, in real time, his history of using labels like “horse-faced lesbian” and smearing black and brown men as unemployable thugs, Bloomberg looked flustered and frustrated, unable to land counterattacks when Elizabeth Warren insisted that Democrats will lose to Donald Trump if they nominate another billionaire whose history includes “hiding his tax returns, harassing women, and supporting racist policies like redlining and stop and frisk,” and Joe Biden accused him of “throwing close to 5 million young black men up against a wall.”
As I’ve previously written, Bloomberg has largely avoided the media since entering the race in November, letting his surrogates, billions in ads, and cardboard cutouts do most of the talking. But Wednesday proved there are some holes in this strategy, which appears to have left him more rusty than rested. Most of Bloomberg’s press rounds have happened in conjunction with a friendly crowd; in recent months, the ex-hizzoner has appeared on an MSNBC show featuring a host “open” to serving as his press secretary, and a daytime talk show cohosted by John McCain’s daughter. Wednesday is the first time Bloomberg has addressed many of his past sins—stop and frisk, his bigoted and sexist comments, and the mistreatment of women at Bloomberg LP—in a combative atmosphere, with “2020 Democratic Presidential Candidate” attached to his lower-third. And, despite reportedly exhaustive debate prep, he didn’t even have good answers, chalking sexual harassment allegations up to women disliking “a joke I told”; citing stop and frisk as something he was “embarrassed about”; and implying that he cannot release his tax returns because he’s too rich for the plebes at TurboTax.
The press dug in, albeit a little self-servingly. “This was his first foray into the national stage. He should have dealt with these questions,” Morning Joe cohost Mika Brzezinski said Thursday. “He should have done interviews, beyond with personal friends. He should have come on Morning Joe, gone on other shows and gotten through this stuff, and figured out whether or not he can deal with it.” It was quite a rebuke of Bloomberg, who is no stranger to the set. (As mayor, he once visited with a proclamation declaring “Morning Joe Day”). Al Jazeera English and Intercept host Mehdi Hasan tweeted that Bloomberg can come on his TV show or podcast, while Axios’s Jonathan Swan offered some advice on media strategy.
Bruised from a stern beating, perhaps Bloomberg will look into making the TV rounds so that next week’s debate in South Carolina—which he’s already committed to—isn’t the next time millions of Americans see him flub. But if his post-debate moves are any indication, the odds aren’t great. Candidates typically speak with reporters following a debate, but Bloomberg was a no-show in Las Vegas; he instead dispatched his longtime communications aide Stu Loeser to deal with the press. It’s also common for candidates to appear on the networks for post-game interviews; Warren, Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg immediately headed to MSNBC. But Bloomberg campaign manager Kevin Sheekey went on CNN in lieu of the candidate. While other candidates stuck around to rub shoulders and shake hands with voters, Bloomberg immediately exited the stage.
Another indication that Bloomberg may stay the course: His campaign is spinning last night’s performance as not so bad. “I think he’s got his legs underneath him. And, like, you know, listen, I welcome them for the Bronx cheer they gave us last night,” Sheekey told Politico, even after conceding that his first half showing was not nearly as good as his second half. “Mike will be back. And then I think this is a campaign that right now is just getting interesting.”
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