One Democratic rival took Mike Bloomberg to task over past remarks he’s made about everything from domestic violence to policing. Another for funding Republican campaigns. Still another hit him for allegations of buying political favor.
That was in 2001, 2005 and 2009, respectively: the last three times Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, stood behind a podium and faced off against political rivals. But by the end of Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas, the first for he which has qualified, he’s likely to have weathered similar attacks — and more.
A Bloomberg campaign official told NBC News on Tuesday that Bloomberg has been preparing for the spotlight and the scrutiny, adding that the campaign is readying him to take plenty of “incoming fire.”
Businessman Bradley Tusk, a longtime Bloomberg adviser, is running the debate prep process, campaign officials said. In those sessions, senior adviser Marc La Vorgna, a longtime aide, is playing former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; senior adviser Marcia Hale is portraying Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Democratic strategist Howard Wolfson, a Bloomberg adviser, is filling in as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; and national press secretary Julie Wood is acting as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
The campaign projected modest expectations for Wednesday, with one Bloomberg official saying the dynamic to watch will be how the candidate responds to being one of six competing as opposed to one of two in a head-to-head debate, the format he has previously competed under during his three mayoral runs.
“These candidates on the debate stage have been doing this for almost a year now, once a month,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist. “Bloomberg hasn’t really been in the public eye and having to answer tough questions in six years. So he could be rusty or, if he’s a smart man, he will have been practicing a lot.”
Reviews of his past debate performances appear to show a Bloomberg who went from a reserved, even timid presence onstage during his first bid for mayor as a Republican in 2001 to an aggressive competitor by the time he sought a third term as a political independent in 2009.
During his last 2001 debate against his Democratic opponent, Mark Green, who was then New York City’s public advocate, Bloomberg was “measured and reserved, almost seeming fatigued,” The New York Times noted.
When he faced off against former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer in 2005, The Times wrote that while Ferrer “was looking for a fight,” Bloomberg “was largely trying to avoid one — or, at least, to engage only when he thought it tactically beneficial.” It added that the mayor “stuck tight to his lectern and spent most of the debate looking dead ahead or at his panel of questioners.”
Those assessments shifted in tone in 2009, with The Times describing Bloomberg in his final debate as having shown “the ferocity of a bulldog” in ripping into his Democratic opponent, New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson, saying Bloomberg “showed an aggressiveness he seldom displays in public” and “turned almost every question put to him into an attack on his rival.”
Familiar lines of attack
Some of the attacks Bloomberg has faced in recent days, particularly as a trove of comments he’s made in recent years have resurfaced, drawing renewed attention and scrutiny, recall the criticism Bloomberg took on past debate stages.
In 2001, his opponent, Green, asked Bloomberg during a debate about past statements he was alleged to have made, including remarks that sanitation workers have a more dangerous job than police and firefighters, that rape can be prosecuted only if there was a third-party witness and that domestic violence is a quality-of-life crime.
“I guess like graffiti,” Green said.
Bloomberg shot back, saying that although he “certainly said” those things, Green was trying to “smear” him by taking “them all out of context.”
“When it came time to the issue of saying you needed a third-party witness, it was for a five-year-old case that the judge dismissed,” Bloomberg said. “Two years after an event occurred, you do need some kind of corroborating evidence, and the judge said that.
“In terms of quality-of-life crimes, the issue is not the label. The issue is how do you stop the despicable behavior, domestic violence?” he continued. “Don’t worry about labels. Worry about the substance.”
Bloomberg didn’t simply sit back on defense during that debate, however. He also set out to label Green as having no “experience in managing a large organization, in leading a large number of people, in setting large budgets and in actually doing things.”
In 2005, Ferrer took aim at Bloomberg for his support of President George W. Bush and other Republicans, saying, “You’d do yourself a favor by putting your checkbook away.”
Bloomberg, who was still a registered Republican at the time, responded that he supports lawmakers of both parties who are interested in pursuing policies beneficial to New Yorkers.
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His most recent debates, in 2009, also featured plenty of issues that Bloomberg and his opponents could revisit Wednesday.
At multiple points, Thompson hit Bloomberg for donations he made to prominent leaders and organizations who in turn supported his candidacy.
The 2009 debates also demonstrated the fine line Bloomberg walked between his support of progressive policies, such as his comments that health care legislation should include a public option and that President Barack Obama had not done enough for gay rights, and his independent streak, saying former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would be a good governor — an idea Thompson rejected.
Bloomberg, who is bypassing the first four voting states, is “looking forward” to the battle, his campaign manager, Kevin Sheekey, said in a statement Tuesday.
“Our campaign is seeing a groundswell of support across the country, and qualifying for the Feb. 19 debate is the latest sign that Mike’s plan and ability to defeat Donald Trump is resonating with more and more Americans,” Sheekey said.
Philippe Reines, a former top aide to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton who helped prep her ahead of debates, said in an interview Monday that his advice to Bloomberg about Wednesday’s debate would be simple: Don’t go.
“The downside is much, much bigger than the upside,” Reines said. But if Bloomberg does take the stage, Reines said, his counsel would be to, “as much as possible, stick to strategy, which is delivering a very straightforward message,” and talking “to camera as much as possible.”
Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod, a senior adviser to Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said Bloomberg should be “prepared for all the incoming attacks, not just the ones that we’ve seen so far.”
“He cannot be impatient,” she said. “He cannot show that he’s irritated about people going after his record. It’s all fair game. You are running for president of the United States, you are seeking the Democratic nomination, and this is your chance to get out behind those paid media ads and demonstrate to the American people why you should be their choice.”