At Wednesday’s debate, the Democratic candidates totally ignored my advice, offered in a recent column, not to go scorched-earth on one another. Fine, that’s their prerogative, no hurt feelings. But folks, at least acknowledge what you just did: You spent two hours bashing the wrong piñata.

I’m talking especially to you, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). And also to you, former vice president Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.). You spent most of the evening throwing punches at former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. And though quite a few of those haymakers connected, it’s not Bloomberg who potentially could build an uncatchable lead in the delegate count on Super Tuesday, less than two weeks away. It’s Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who threatens to run away with this thing — and you let him come through the melee with barely a scratch.

Sanders, who is 78 and recently had a heart attack, was asked about his refusal to release all of his medical records, but was hardly pressed aggressively on the subject. Biden slammed Sanders for voting to kill the 2007 immigration reform bill, but none of the other candidates took the opportunity to pile on. And Sanders wasn’t asked at all about his numerous votes against modest and reasonable gun-control measures supported by most Democrats.

I’m not arguing that Sanders has to be denied the nomination or that he can’t possibly beat President Trump. But if his competitors decided to have a bare-knuckles debate, it was political malpractice for them to give the front-runner such a free pass.

And speaking of political malpractice, how is it even possible that Bloomberg did not come prepared to answer the tough questions he had to know he would face? On the stop-and-frisk policy Bloomberg once championed, he mumbled aimlessly about the New York murder rate before finally saying, as if he’d just remembered, that “I’ve apologized. I’ve asked for forgiveness.”

Bloomberg was even more flummoxed when Warren pressed him relentlessly about his history of sexist remarks and the nondisclosure agreements that silenced women who received financial settlements from his company. “Maybe they didn’t like a joke I told” is hardly exculpatory.

On climate change — which Bloomberg Philanthropies last year pledged half a billion dollars to combat — Bloomberg was sharper and more specific than any of the others. Overall, however, he had a pretty awful night.

But did Bloomberg’s shaky performance disqualify him in the eyes of Democratic primary voters, as his competitors seemed to hope? I doubt it. He made a mess, but he has until March 3 to clean it up. He can far outspend all the other campaigns put together on television, online and social media advertising in California, Texas and the other Super Tuesday states. All he has to do is avoid another fiasco at next week’s debate in South Carolina.

All Sanders has to do, though, is stay on track and count the delegates that are likely to come his way. Let’s say he wins the caucuses in Nevada on Saturday, as polls suggest. And assume Biden’s solid and energetic debate performance was enough for him to win in South Carolina a week later, but Sanders finishes second.

Sanders would then go into Super Tuesday with a delegate lead and a head of steam. Bloomberg is the only other candidate with the money to be competitive everywhere. But unless he or someone else manages to beat Sanders in one or more of the big states on March 3, Sanders could emerge with a lead that’s almost impossible to erase.

The most important question of the debate came at the end. If no one comes to the convention with a majority of pledged delegates, moderator Chuck Todd asked, should the nomination go to the one who comes closest? Bloomberg, Warren, Biden, Klobuchar and Buttigieg all said no. Instead, they argued that the party’s “superdelegate” rules, which allow certain elected officials and party insiders to throw their support to another candidate of their choice if there isn't a first-ballot winner at the Democratic convention, should be applied. Only Sanders maintained that whoever has a plurality should be given the nomination, because that would reflect the will of “the people.”

That stance directly contradicts the position he took in 2016. That’s because Sanders thinks he’s going to have that lead going into the convention. And nobody did anything Wednesday night to stop him.

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