WASHINGTON - Six U.S. Democratic presidential candidates squared off in a contentious debate late Wednesday, with billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg the target of sharp attacks from his challengers in their first face-to-face encounter.
Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota immediately accused Bloomberg of trying to buy the Democratic nomination by spending nearly $400 million of his own money on a massive national political advertising campaign, even as he skips party nominating contests in four states this month where Democrats are casting the first votes to eventually pick a nominee in July.
Klobuchar said she did not think American voters look at Republican President Donald Trump and say "we need someone richer" like Bloomberg, the world's 12th-richest person.
Bloomberg, in his first political debate since 2009, when he last ran for mayor of the country's largest city, responded that he did not inherit wealth like Trump, but earned it by founding and operating his eponymous business information company.
"Now I'm spending that money to get rid of Donald Trump, the worst president the country has ever had," Bloomberg said.
Sanders, who is leading in the national polls and won the popular vote in the first two primary tests this month in Iowa and New Hampshire, argued that he was best equipped to attract the largest voter turnout in history to unseat Trump in the November general election.
However, Bloomberg swiftly attacked Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, as unelectable in November's national election against Trump, in part because of Sanders' proposed government-funded universal health care program, "Medicare for all," that could possibly eliminate private insurance coverage for 160 million Americans.
"I don't think there's any chance of the senator beating President Trump," Bloomberg said. "If he goes and is the [Democratic] candidate, we will have Donald Trump for another four years, and we can't stand that."
Bloomberg also absorbed attacks for a policy he adopted as New York mayor from 2002 to 2013, a police tactic called "stop and frisk," when authorities randomly stopped people on city sidewalks they believed posed a threat, often young black and Latino men, to frisk them in an effort to get guns out of crime-ridden neighborhoods.
Sanders, the clear current front-runner, called the policy "outrageous." Former Vice President Joe Biden called the policy "abhorrent," saying that the administration of President Barack Obama, of which he was part, contested it and Bloomberg defended it.
Bloomberg conceded the policy "got out of control" and that he now is "embarrassed" by the policy and the fact it took him so long to phase it out.
"The bottom line was we stopped too many people," Bloomberg said.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts pressed Bloomberg to explain countless sexist and misogynistic comments he made over the years at his company. She demanded that Bloomberg release women from non-disclosure agreements they signed when they accepted financial payments for the demeaning conduct, "so we can hear their side of the story."
But Bloomberg refused, saying he would not release the women from the agreements because he said they also wanted them to remain sealed.
Biden chided Bloomberg as well, saying, "This is about transparency, this is what you did to me."
"I have no tolerance for the kind of conduct the 'Me Too' movement has exposed" of powerful men abusing and harassing women in the workplace, Bloomberg said. He cited the number of female executives he employs and that they are paid the same as men.
Wednesday's debate was in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Western state where Democratic caucus voting is going on this week through Saturday, when most of the balloting occurs. Bloomberg is neither on the ballot in Nevada nor the ballot next week in the Atlantic coastal state of South Carolina. He is instead concentrating on 14 states that vote March 3 -- an event called Super Tuesday -- when he will be on the ballot.
With his frequent ads on U.S. airwaves and social media, Bloomberg has climbed to second or third in national polls of Democrats, trailing only Sanders and sometimes Biden, with Warren, Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg trailing.
Until Wednesday night, the 78-year-old Bloomberg had not qualified for any of the debates since he announced his candidacy in November. The other Democratic candidates had already engaged in eight debates since mid-2019.
Bloomberg's rustiness as a debater showed, with the other candidates butting in to contradict their opponents, while Bloomberg rarely interjected himself into the raucous exchanges.
Sanders edged Buttigieg in voting in the first two Democratic contests, in the rural, mostly white states of Iowa in the U.S. heartland and New Hampshire in the northeastern part of the country.
The Democratic candidates are facing a much more diverse electorate in Nevada, where the population is about 29 percent Hispanic, 10 percent African American and 10 percent Asian.