Democrats bare fangs at Bloomberg in fiery debate

US presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg (L), the former mayor of New York, joined his fellow Democrats on stage for the first time for their ninth debate of the party's nomination process on February 19, 2020. [AFP]

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg got hit Wednesday with a barrage of attacks from rivals during his debut Democratic presidential debate who savaged him for parachuting in late and throwing astronomical amounts of money at the race.

The Las Vegas showdown marked one of the most contentious debates so far.

During opening salvos, the US media magnate found himself in the firing line as one candidate after another, from Senator Bernie Sanders to former vice president Joe Biden, took pot shots at the man whose sudden prominence in polling has scrambled the race to defeat President Donald Trump.

"Understand this. Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another," Senator Elizabeth Warren, fighting for her campaign survival, said in a fiery attack on Bloomberg.

"Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist policies like red-lining and stop and frisk," she said, referring to systematic denial of loans and a New York crime-prevention strategy that adversely impacted residents of color.

Sanders, the leftist firebrand senator who has emerged as frontrunner in the Democratic race, also attacked Bloomberg for his "outrageous" stop-and-frisk policies and said picking such a divisive nominee to battle Trump in November's election "is not a way you're going to grow voter turnout."

All eyes were on Bloomberg as he navigated a 2020 national audience for the first time, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars of his vast personal fortune on campaign advertising that fuelled a rise in polling that has sent him into the top tier of candidates.

Bloomberg's most important appearance on the national stage in more than a decade was a very public vetting, and he notably kept his composure under fire during the debate's first hour, highlighting his role as a problem solver, a city manager and a philanthropist.

He also pushed back forcefully against Sanders.

"I don't think there's any chance of the senator beating Donald Trump," Bloomberg said, adding that if Sanders is the nominee, "we will have Donald Trump for another four years."

Sanders has been buoyed by a strong showing in Iowa, a victory in New Hampshire and a surge in polling with the next nominating contest, in Nevada, just three days away.

But establishment Democrats have begun public handwringing about the prospects of Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, taking the reins of a party seeking to make Trump a one-term president.

Pete Buttigieg, the moderate young former mayor of South Bend, Indiana who scored a surprise narrow victory in Iowa, levelled a hit on both Sanders and Bloomberg with a withering if well-rehearsed critique.

"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," Buttigieg said.

"Let's put forward someone who's actually a Democrat," he said, a knock on Sanders as well as Bloomberg who was a Democrat before running for mayor as a Republican and then an independent, and finally returned to the Democratic Party in 2018.

'Dangerous time'

A Washington Post-ABC News poll out Wednesday showed Sanders with a commanding double-digit lead nationally, at 32 percent.

Sagging former frontrunner Biden, who has suffered the most from Bloomberg's gains, was second at 16 percent, followed by Bloomberg at 14 and Warren at 12.

While Sanders and other White House hopefuls have spent months barnstorming early states, billionaire Bloomberg jumped late into the Democratic contest.

He is going all in on so-called Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states including California and Texas vote on choosing a Democratic nominee.

Sanders and Bloomberg, both 78, have also tangled in increasingly ugly ways recently.

Earlier Wednesday, Bloomberg spokesman Tim O'Brien accused the Sanders campaign of behaving in "Trumpy" fashion by falsely asserting that Bloomberg has had a heart attack.

He did have stents installed in 2000 because of a coronary blockage but has never had a cardiac arrest. Sanders had a heart attack in October.

"Those are the facts," O'Brien tweeted. "It's a dangerous time when Sanders goes all in with Trumpism."

Sanders, in a peace offering of sorts, acknowledged on stage that both men have had stents inserted to open an artery, "one area maybe that mayor Bloomberg and I shared."

While Sanders leads, Bloomberg is surging on the national stage. Two separate polls released Tuesday show him leapfrogging rivals to claim second spot behind Sanders, with Biden third.

For Warren, Klobuchar and Biden, the Nevada debate is a critical opportunity for them to convince voters that they belong in the race heading into the stretch.