Bloomberg seemed to disappear for much of the debate. When the camera caught him on a split screen as someone else was talking, he looked annoyed and, occasionally, lost.
He was caught flat-footed even by questions that he surely knew were coming.
Bloomberg will not be on any ballot until next month’s Super Tuesday contests. His strategy has been to leverage his enormous wealth into a presumption that he is invincible. Strategists for his campaign are already arguing that he is the only one who can prevent the Democratic nomination from going to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist who many in the party fear would go down to a landslide defeat against President Trump.
Across the country, Democrats were sizing Bloomberg up, not only against the others who were actually on the stage, but in their estimations of how well he would do against Trump and his slash-and-burn tactics.
Bloomberg’s uneven performance Wednesday offered little reassurance that he could hold his ground against Trump on a debate stage this fall.
Asked about sexist comments that he is alleged to have made to female employees of his news and business information company, Bloomberg tried to deflect by talking about his record of promoting women.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who had an especially good night, was ready for that one: “I hope you heard what his defense was: ‘I’ve been nice to some women.’ ”
She and former vice president Joe Biden double-teamed Bloomberg on his refusal to release women who have sued him for sex discrimination from nondisclosure agreements (or, for that matter, to even say how many of them there are).
“They decided when they made an agreement that they wanted to keep it quiet,” Bloomberg said, lamely. That exchange brought boos from the audience in the hall.
Bloomberg’s was the most highly anticipated debut of a presidential candidate on a national debate stage since Trump made his entrance in Cleveland back in August 2015.
That first one saw Trump standing alongside five current or former governors, three senators and an acclaimed neurosurgeon. They were part of what was arguably the most highly credentialed field of GOP contenders in modern history. It was largely because of his dominance — and, often, his shamelessness — in those debates that Trump managed to vanquish them all.
Bloomberg suffered from the fact that the other five were far more agile and seasoned, having been through eight previous debates this campaign season. He may get better at this as the campaign progresses — and, indeed, seemed to have found some footing in the second half of the debate. He offered, for instance, a strong defense of capitalism in a sharp exchange with Sanders.
Or maybe, it just won’t matter. Never has any candidate had the financial resources that Bloomberg says he is prepared to spend on his quest for the White House.
But one thing that was made clear to Bloomberg on Wednesday is that his rivals are not going to give way for him, as some of his campaign strategists have suggested they should. A large and fractured field benefits Sanders, who after contests in Iowa and New Hampshire has emerged as the front-runner.
“I’ve been told many times to wait my turn and to step aside,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said. “And I’m not going to do that now, and I’m not going to do that because a campaign memo from Mayor Bloomberg said this morning that the only way that we get a nominee is if we step aside for him.”
Bloomberg also got slammed by comparisons — and surely not for the last time — with the president they want so desperately to unseat.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against,” Warren said. “A billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.” She was referring to a comment that was attributed to Bloomberg in a joke book that he was given as a long-ago birthday present, but he did not deny that he had said it.
If nothing else, Bloomberg is going to have to learn how to take a hit — and how to deliver one in return. Because, in a presidential campaign, there are going to be many more moments like this, when people are going to find out what kind of candidate is somewhere back there behind his ads.