Here are the biggest, most dramatic brawls of the night.
1. Bloomberg vs. everyone: ‘Maybe they didn’t like the joke I told’
No surprise: The former New York mayor and billionaire’s first time on the debate stage as he rises in the polls was contentious. The other candidates, sensing a threat from Mike Bloomberg’s unlimited bank account and the growing number of voters finding him electable, came at him from every angle: his record on race as mayor, his record on gender as a businessman and his wealth.
They first attacked him on his city’s stop-and-frisk policy. “Mr. Bloomberg had policies in New York City of stop-and-frisk, which went after African American and Latino people in an outrageous way,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the current leader in the polls. “That is not a way you’re going to grow voter turnout.”
In a debate over taxes, former vice president Joe Biden also jabbed Bloomberg for comments in which he seemed to blame the end of a discriminatory housing practice for the 2008 economic collapse.
But it was Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) whose debate strategy seemed to be most heavily focused on attacking Bloomberg. The first chance she got to speak, she brought up his documented demeaning comments about women. “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.”
Later, she repeatedly pressured Bloomberg to release an unknown number of women who worked for his company from nondisclosure agreements. Biden jumped in on this, too, explaining that one word from Bloomberg could release these women from their legally binding silence. Bloomberg said he wouldn’t and then tried to explain it away with an off-color line that feels like it could haunt his campaign: “None of them accused me of doing anything other than maybe they didn’t like the joke I told.”
Twice, in separate discussions about when he would release his taxes and whether billionaires should exist, Bloomberg was forced to defend his billions of dollars as Sanders and Warren framed it as excess: “I make a lot of money,” Bloomberg said.
2. Buttigieg vs. Sanders: ‘Let’s put forward somebody who’s actually a Democrat’
If Bloomberg hadn’t been on the stage, Sanders would have been the top target. He and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg had the most animosity, given they were the top two in the first two primaries. Early on, Buttigieg compared Sanders to Bloomberg:
“Look, we shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out,” he said. He also got applause with: “Let’s put forward somebody who’s actually a Democrat.” (Sanders is an independent and Bloomberg has switched party affiliation a few times.)
Sanders fired back at Buttigieg, attacking him for accepting money from some billionaires.
Later, Sanders was asked about some of his supporters taking aim at union leaders in Nevada with profane language. Sanders said it was inexcusable and wondered whether he was the victim of online trolls trying to make his campaign look bad. Buttigieg tried not to let him off the hook: “Leadership is about what you draw out of people. It’s how you inspire people to act,” he said, interrupting Sanders.
Later, Buttigieg said Sanders should release more of his health records after his heart attack, and he segued into a familiar attack on the costs of Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan. Sanders replied, “Let’s level, Pete,” and went after Buttigieg for the cost of his plan.
To which Buttigieg accused Sanders of absolutism: “On issue after issue after issue, this is what Senator Sanders is saying. If you’re not with him, if you’re not all the way on his side, then you must be for the status quo.”
3. Warren vs. everyone on health care
After disappointing showings in Iowa and New Hampshire and stagnant poll numbers, Warren came to fight. She has been trying to carve out a space for herself as the unity candidate, someone who can bridge Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan with moderates who think it’s too radical.
But that’s led to some confusion from voters about where she stands.
So on Wednesday, she tried to differentiate herself by punching at almost every candidate on the stage for their health-care plans, which she labeled ineffective (Buttigieg: “paper-thin version of a plan”) or too short (Klobuchar: It can “fit on a Post-it Note”). Most notably, on health care, she said Sanders was not being a team player or realistic — echoing a thematic attack from Buttigieg. “His campaign relentlessly attacks everyone who asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make this work,” Warren said of Sanders. “And then his own advisers say that probably won’t happen anyway.”
4. Klobuchar vs. Buttigieg: ‘Are you trying to say I’m dumb?’
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has been trying to engage Buttigieg in a debate since the very first ones. She needs him to falter if she wants a shot at seizing the moderate lane. And after Klobuchar came in third in New Hampshire, just behind Buttigieg, he was ready to engage.
He seemed to come prepared with research about her voting record, especially on immigration. He attacked her for voting to confirm President Trump’s head of Customs and Border Protection.
“I wish everyone was perfect like you, Pete, but let me tell you what it’s like to be in the arena,” Klobuchar responded, adding that she had to make tough decisions as a senator.
It was an extension of a debate they had in New Hampshire about whether experience in Washington is a liability, as Buttigieg has sometimes made it, or a strength, as Klobuchar is trying to frame it.
Buttigieg was also more than willing to jump on Klobuchar when she was asked a question about her not being able to name the president of Mexico or talk about his specific policies in a recent interview with Telemundo. “Are you trying to say I’m dumb or you’re somehow mocking me, Pete?” an incredulous Klobuchar asked.
Warren stepped in to defend Klobuchar. “I understand that she forgot a name,” she said. “It happens. It happens to everyone on this stage.”