By Simon Lewis and Tim Reid
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) – Michael Bloomberg faced a barrage of attacks at his first Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday, as his rivals assailed the free-spending and fast-rising billionaire over his record on race, history of sexist comments and the use of his massive fortune to muscle his way into the contest.
In a rough debate debut that gave voters their first unscripted look at the media mogul and self-funding former New York mayor, Bloomberg seemed uncomfortable and hesitant as he defended his record and argued that he is Democrats’ best chance of beating Republican President Donald Trump in November.
Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg all lined up to go after Bloomberg, who has surged in polls helped by an unprecedented advertising blitz. But they also heaped personal attacks on one another in the most contentious of the nine Democratic White House debates.
All of the contenders on the Las Vegas debate stage accused Bloomberg of trying to buy his way into the White House and said his record as mayor and businessman was not good enough to beat Trump.
“We’re running against a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians,” said Warren, a senator from Massachusetts. “And, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
“Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,” she added.
Bloomberg has been accused over the years of many sexist and misogynistic comments, and several lawsuits have been filed alleging that women were discriminated against at his media company.
He did not respond to Warren’s comments about his alleged remarks about women, taken from a booklet given to him in 1990 that was said to be a compilation of his sayings over the years. A campaign spokesman has said Bloomberg “simply did not say the things somebody wrote in this gag gift.”
Bloomberg, who entered the race in November and is skipping the first four early voting states in February to focus on later nominating contests in March, has risen to No. 2 among Democrats behind Sanders, according to a Reuters/Ipsos national poll released on Tuesday.
Bloomberg said at the debate that he was using his money for an important cause.
“I’m spending that money to get rid of Donald Trump – the worst president we’ve ever had. And if I can get that done, it will be a great contribution to America and to my kids,” he said.
Trump was happy to inject himself into the debate pile-on of Bloomberg, telling supporters at a rally in Phoenix: “I hear he’s getting pounded tonight.”
The debate came at a pivotal time, three days before Nevada’s presidential caucuses, the third contest in the state-by-state race to find a challenger to Trump in the Nov. 3 election.
The high stakes were evident in the intensity of the exchanges, with Biden and Warren, in particular, facing the do-or-die task of reigniting their campaigns after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this month.
Both Warren and Biden, the former vice president and onetime front-runner who lost ground to Sanders and Bloomberg in recent weeks, criticized Bloomberg for his treatment of women, and asked him to commit to releasing women who had signed nondisclosure agreements to settle lawsuits.
Bloomberg refused, saying they were made “consensually” with the expectation they would stay private.
“We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many nondisclosure agreements, and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against,” said Warren, who had her most aggressive debate.
Bloomberg said there were “very few” nondisclosure agreements. “None of them accuse me of anything,” he said. “Maybe they didn’t like the jokes I told.”
‘WELCOME TO THE PARTY, MAN’
Sanders, a progressive senator who has surged to the top of polls, criticized Bloomberg’s support for “stop-and-frisk” police policies as mayor that “went after African-American and Latino people in an outrageous way.”
Bloomberg has long struggled with the legacy of the divisive tactic, which encouraged police to stop and search pedestrians and ensnared disproportionate numbers of blacks and Latinos.
Biden, who is banking on his support among African Americans to revive his flagging candidacy, said stop and frisk had thrown “close to 5 million young black men up against the wall.”
Bloomberg said he was “worried” and “embarrassed” about his past support for stop-and-frisk and that he had apologized for supporting it.
But his rivals were not willing to let him off the hook.
“It’s not whether you apologize or not, it’s the policy… And it was in fact a violation of every right people have,” Biden said.
After a discussion of Sanders’ economic proposals, such as requiring that a share of large companies is owned by employees, Bloomberg said he could not think of an easier way to get Trump re-elected.
“It’s ridiculous. We’re not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that, other countries tried – it was called communism and just didn’t work,” he said. Sanders called it “a cheap shot.”
Bloomberg fired back. “The best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses,” he said, referring to Sanders.
Buttigieg, the moderate former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who edged Sanders in Iowa and narrowly lost to him in New Hampshire, attacked both Sanders and Bloomberg.
“Most Americans don’t see where they fit if they have to choose between a socialist who thinks money is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power,” Buttigieg said.
In an apparent jab at Bloomberg, formerly a Republican, he said: “Let’s put forward somebody who’s actually a Democrat.”
Biden said on MSNBC that he told Bloomberg as they left the debate stage: “Welcome to the party, man.”
(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Tim Reid in Las Vegas and John Whitesides, Ginger Gibson and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Peter Cooney and Sonya Hepinstall)