In this special debate day edition: The stakes for every candidate onstage, the ongoing health-care wars, and new polls that show Sanders in command.

I hope you're excited for another round of Medicare-for-all questions, and this is The Trailer.

LAS VEGAS — Tonight's Democratic debate, the ninth one put on with the Democratic National Committee, grew out of a process designed to avoid charges of unfairness while allowing the party to keep some form of control. 

The DNC is not getting much credit for that process now. Mike Bloomberg has pulled himself onto the debate stage, for the first time, because he hit 10 percent or above in multiple national polls after what is already the most expensive primary ad campaign in political history. Many Democrats bristled when Tom Steyer spent his way onstage by using social media ads to attract small-dollar donors. They were even more comfortable accusing Bloomberg of buying an election.

“What else do you call it when you dip into your endless reserves of millions and billions and don't go through the process of campaigning in states like Nevada or Iowa or New Hampshire, humbling yourself, going into the diners and the backyards, looking eye to eye to voters?” former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg asked at a Tuesday night CNN town hall here. “To try to just go around that by throwing colossal sums of money on television shows you what's wrong with our system.”

Bloomberg's presence will alter the debate at a time when Democrats are growing even more nervous about the risks of infighting. One day after the president pardoned or commuted the sentences of wealthy supporters and even a Democrat convicted of corruption, Democrats will get less time than they'd like to focus on President Trump; there's a whole new candidate to vet onstage. Just as Bloomberg has been depriving moderate candidates of attention, he'll shrink the time that Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), former vice president Joe Biden and Buttigieg get to make their electability arguments; he'll shrink the time Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) gets to push her way back into the race. 

Bloomberg on the hot seat. The 12th wealthiest person in the world has taken plenty of questions since his presidential campaign began, about his tax returns (he'll release them at some point), his business (he'll sell it if he wins), and his stop-and-frisk policies in New York (he's sorry about that). But he has not taken them from rival candidates in real time, and they can’t wait to go after him.

“He’s been a Republican his whole life,” Biden said during a stop at a Culinary Union picket line on Wednesday morning. “He didn’t endorse Barack and me when we ran.”

He will not be a pushover. Bloomberg has not participated in a campaign debate since 2009, his last campaign for mayor, when he was an overwhelming favorite to defeat an underfunded Democratic opponent, Bill Thompson. The mayor did not take it for granted. He portrayed Thompson as an ineffective climber who “failed our future” in his time on the board of education and who had taken money from donors with city business, a contrast with Bloomberg's refusal to take donations of any kind.

“Give the money back,” Bloomberg said. “It just looks terrible, even if it’s not.”

Bloomberg's campaign has previewed the night by suggesting that he will dismiss Buttigieg's experience, attack Sanders's transparency and portray his strategy as the only one that can guarantee a trustworthy president — no donors, no outside influence. 

Sanders among the bros. While Bloomberg is forcing other Democrats to talk about something new, Sanders is being asked to defend one of the most well-worn topics in this race: whether his supporters are too mean. Starting last week, after leaders of Nevada's Culinary union accused Sanders supporters of harassing them and publishing personal information, Sanders has faced more questions about his base.

“I will condemn, absolutely, anybody, including my campaign or any other campaign, that makes vicious personal attacks against people,” Sanders said at Tuesday's CNN town hall. “But let me just say this: Talk to the people in my campaign, often the African American women in this campaign, talk to my wife about the kind of ugly attacks that have come in to us. So right now, which is a very serious national problem, we have an Internet which is essentially the Wild West.”

Sanders spokeswoman Briahna Joy Gray erred in describing Bloomberg's health, but in her cleanup she said Bloomberg “underwent the same stent procedure as Bernie” while “Bernie released 3 detailed medical reports in December.” 

Buttigieg vs. experience. With the exception of Klobuchar, Buttigieg's rivals have been generous about the short résumé he'd bring into the White House. Bloomberg has not been, dismissing Buttigieg as the “mayor of a town” who cannot seriously sell himself as a future president. Buttigieg tends to turn that criticism around on his opponents — the “point” of his campaign, he says, is the country could use a young, fresh voice with no Washington experience.

That argument might have its best background yet, with Buttigieg debating a billionaire who tried to corral elite support through donations, and with Culinary's opposition to Medicare-for-all letting him warn that Sanders would be an alienating nominee. Still, Buttigieg may have narrowly lost New Hampshire because Klobuchar had such a convincing debate performance there, picking apart his qualifications. 

Klobuchar under pressure. For the first time in a long time, the U.S. senator from Minnesota has been getting skeptical questions about her record. She took two tries to explain why she'd voted for a Republican English-only amendment to a 2007 immigration bill. She blanked when asked to name the president of Mexico, which got traction even in this chaotic race, as Buttigieg said she'd proved how Washington experience was overrated.

“I would say to the mayor, this isn't like a game of ‘Jeopardy,’ ” Klobuchar said in last night's CNN town hall. "This is about, to me, experience."

Much like Warren over last summer's debates, Klobuchar has been able to stand out in debates without taking heat from challengers or feeling much pressure from moderators; she's been called on to make the case against more left-wing candidates, not asked to defend herself. We simply haven't seen her fight about her vote record in real time. But like Buttigieg, she could benefit from attacking Bloomberg, and she may be in a stronger position to bring up the mayor's on-video dismissiveness of farmers.

Warren in a corner. The U.S. senator from Massachusetts followed the wrong strategy in the last debate, and it cost her. Disappointed by her third-place showing in Iowa, but not reeling from it, she delivered a safe performance that relied on her sturdiest talking points. She did not interrupt. She did not pick fights. She ended up with less speaking time than Biden or Klobuchar. Warren had faced months of criticism for seeming too angry, or too focused on fighting; Klobuchar fought all night, and reaped the benefits.

We're unlikely to see the same Warren tonight. She has engaged more with questions about rival candidates, and she has blistered Bloomberg (who, as we may hear again, opposed her 2012 campaign for Senate) for buying his way into the primary. On the trail, she often jokes that Bloomberg thought running against her would be cheaper than having to pay her wealth tax; as she gets less and less coverage, it's an argument few voters have heard. Warren also has a made-for-TV moment ready to go: What does she say when asked about a super PAC that was created to help her, against her wishes and against her brand?

Biden on the ropes. He's lost to Warren in two consecutive races, but Biden is in a sweeter narrative spot than her: People are watching him for a comeback. Biden has been arguing, directly, that the primary will change when “99 percent” of nonwhite voters get to vote, which starts Saturday. He's made only a few public appearances in Nevada, but he's used them to lay out two arguments — no other candidate can claim to have beaten the NRA (Las Vegas witnessed the worst mass shooting in modern American history three years ago), and no other candidate is as ready to protect union health care.

“I’ll be damned if we’re going to erase the union’s effort!” Biden said at Saturday night's dinner for Clark County Democrats.

Biden's also gone after Bloomberg for an ad campaign that interpolates praise that Barack Obama gave the former mayor, all of it after Bloomberg's 2008 decision to stay neutral in the presidential race. That's a fresher topic and doesn't take as much time to explain: Biden stood with Obama for eight years, while Bloomberg repeatedly criticized him until it became politically useful to switch. The stakes are low for Biden, who was describing himself as the race's front-runner just days ago: Any memorable grapple with Bloomberg and a second-place showing in Nevada would be seen as evidence that he's bounced back. And it's in the interest of Sanders, who has thrived in the multicandidate race, to let Biden have a moment.

Reading list

“For Mike Bloomberg, Wednesday’s presidential debate means stepping outside his very expensive comfort zone,” by Michael Scherer

What the billionaire's bought for himself tonight.

“Democrat Pete Buttigieg overstated pledges of support from black leaders, public figures,” by Briana Stewart and Beatrice Peterson

For the second time, charges of claiming black support that wasn't there.

“Sanders surges into national lead in new Post-ABC poll,” by Dan Balz and Scott Clement

Big movement away from Biden and toward Sanders.

“Bloomberg, Sanders teams squabble over medical records,” by Caitlin Oprysko

A surprising sequel to “Oh, Hello.”

Dems in disarray

Sixteen busy days have passed since the Iowa caucuses ended, and the top two finishers still don't agree on who won. On Tuesday, the state Democratic Party announced that a recanvass, which the Bernie Sanders campaign had asked for first, reduced Pete Buttigieg's lead to the smallest in Iowa's history. After leading by just three state delegate equivalents, Buttigieg saw his margin reduced to just 0.08 points: The former South Bend, Ind., mayor had 563.207 SDEs to 563.127 for Sanders. 

"While it is clear that Sen. Sanders won the popular vote in Iowa by 6,000 votes, the recanvass process reduced the State Delegate Equivalent deficit by 97 percent,” Sanders campaign adviser Jeff Weaver said in a statement. “We now believe a recount will give Sen. Sanders enough State Delegate Equivalents to put him over the top by that metric as well. We want to thank the people of Iowa, our supporters, our volunteers and everyone who made this possible.” 

Sanders has already declared victory in Iowa, based on the popular vote that the party collected and released for the first time ever. He had trailed in only SDEs, calculated according to the delegate totals in each Iowa precinct and used to assign delegates to the National Democratic Convention. If a recount found him winning, it might net Sanders just one delegate: He won the 2nd Congressional District by 15 SDEs, while Buttigieg won the state's other three districts by two, five and seven delegates. A shift of one delegate in any district would put Sanders ahead, but it would not be enough to change the district math.

The Associated Press has not yet called a winner in the race.

Ad watch

Bernie Sanders, “Dalhi.” Joe Biden's strength in South Carolina has been epitomized by his endorsements, a who's-who of local Democrats confident that he is the strongest candidate to win in November. The newest Sanders ad in the state flips that storyline, putting Richland County Council Vice Chair Dalhi Myers on camera to describe why she flipped from supporting Biden to supporting Sanders. “I want to see the kind of lines around the building that we saw in 2008,” she says. “I want to see people motivated.” It throws the “electability” argument right back at Biden.

Poll watch

Which candidate has the best chance in a general election? (Washington Post/ABC News, 408 Democratic voters)

Bernie Sanders: 30% ( 12)
Joe Biden: 19% (-19)
Mike Bloomberg: 18% ( 10)
Pete Buttigieg: 5% ( 2)
Amy Klobuchar: 4% ( 2)
Elizabeth Warren: 3% (-7)
Tom Steyer: 1% ( 1)

Biden's opening argument to Nevada was that the results from Iowa and New Hampshire were inherently flawed, saying more about how white voters viewed the race than about how the Democratic Party's most reliable voters did. But his fourth- and fifth-place showings in those states (he had previously led in some polls of both) has done real damage to his electability argument, with half of those who viewed him as their safest choice walking away in the past few weeks. Also badly damaged: Warren, who had made real progress on electability and was hurt as much as expected by a neighboring state turning so hard against her.

Would you be enthusiastic or comfortable with this kind of candidate? (NBC News/WSJ, 900 registered voters)

A woman: 84% (-)
Gay or lesbian: 68% (-)
Over 75: 46% ( 9)
Socialist: 28% ( 3)

The Democrats' electability paradox is this: Their voters have convinced themselves that female candidates are less electable, while candidates with characteristics more troubling to general election voters get a pass. As Sanders has gained ground, more voters have come around to the idea of a president who will turn 80 in a first term, and marginally more voters are more comfortable with a “socialist.” 

Candidate tracker

When the Democrats walk offstage tonight, they'll have 60-odd hours to compete in Nevada's caucuses. Not all of them will be spending those hours in Nevada.

Joe Biden. He'll appear in a CNN-hosted town hall in Las Vegas.

Elizabeth Warren. She'll get her own CNN town hall in Las Vegas.

Pete Buttigieg. He'll hold a town hall in Southern California and a fundraiser later in the evening.

Amy Klobuchar. She'll head to Denver for a grass-roots event, returning to Nevada on Friday.

Tom Steyer. He's spending today in southern Nevada, freed (against his wishes) from debate prep, holding an event at a senior's center in Pahrump, a rare Democratic visit to that city; tomorrow he'll be the only Democrat appearing in person at a forum on immigration and asylum policy sponsored by Amnesty International. (Others will send surrogates.)

Tulsi Gabbard. She'll hold a town hall in Boulder, Colo.

Meet a PAC

THE PAC: Persist PAC

PARTY: Democratic

FOCUS: As first reported by Axios, it was launched by a quartet of female Democratic strategists to boost Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign.

BUDGET: It has reserved $1 million in ad spending ahead of the Nevada caucuses.

PLAN: So far, to make an argument that some Warren allies felt she took too long to make: that her biography and experience make her an ideal general election candidate. Its first ad, “Persist,” plays images of Warren over the years over generic hard-rock guitar and the message that she'll “never stop fighting for you.”

EFFECTIVENESS: It could do more harm than good. Warren, like most Democrats at the start of 2019, made the decision not to endorse any super PAC. (Candidates cannot coordinate with these PACs but can make it clear which one donors should support.) At the New Hampshire debate, she noted, accurately, that every other candidate onstage, besides her and Klobuchar, either had personal wealth (Steyer) or was supported by groups that could spend unlimited sums of money on their behalf (Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg). As of this week, both Klobuchar and Warren are now supported by super PACs and have not officially denounced them. The PAC may rob her of a powerful electoral argument, and allow other Democrats to portray Warren as a hypocrite for something she never approved.


… three days until the Nevada caucuses 
… six days until the 10th Democratic debate
… 10 days until the South Carolina primary 
… 13 days until Super Tuesday
… 20 days until Super Tuesday II
… 25 days until the 11th Democratic debate