(Bloomberg) -- Michael Bloomberg’s sudden arrival in the Democratic spotlight has put him under new scrutiny from all of his opponents. But Bernie Sanders has taken him on with unparalleled zeal.
Sanders is holding up Bloomberg as the embodiment of everything the democratic socialist rails against. He is a billionaire with ties to Wall Street who is self-funding his campaign. His past comments about policing, women, minorities and farmers are all grist for Sanders’ rallies.
“Mr. Bloomberg, like anybody else, has a right to run for president,” Sanders told a rally of more than 6,000 people in Richmond, a city near San Francisco on Monday, drawing boos against Bloomberg. “He does not have a right to buy the presidency. Especially after being the mayor of New York and having a racist stop and frisk policy, especially after opposing — imagine a multibillionaire opposing a raise in the minimum wage.”
Bloomberg now supports a $15 per-hour federal minimum wage but in 2014 called raising it “one of the most misguided things that we can do.” Previous comments have also surfaced suggesting a drop in redlining -- the practice of denying loans to minorities -- for contributing to the 2008 financial crisis, that health care should be denied to very old people, and that farming was easy.
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Sanders’ jabs at the former New York mayor reflect the new shape of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, with Sanders’ riding high as the leader of the party’s progressive wing -- and Bloomberg emerging as the most well-funded candidate to stop him from the moderate side of the party. Many establishment Democrats believe Sanders’ positions are too extreme to defeat President Donald Trump.
But so far, none of the centrists in the race -- Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar -- have been able to knock Sanders from the top of the polls, leaving a Sanders-Bloomberg battle to lead the Democratic ticket a possibility.
Bloomberg qualified for his first debate of the cycle Wednesday in Las Vegas after he reached 19% support in a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Tuesday. It was his fourth poll with more than 10% support, meeting the Democratic National Committee’s new threshold for qualification.
Sanders won the popular vote in the Iowa caucuses, won the New Hampshire primary and is leading in California, the biggest delegate prize on Super Tuesday, March 3, the first time Bloomberg’s name appears on a ballot. Bloomberg has spent more than $400 million advertising across the country, including the Super Tuesday states, where he is staking his candidacy.
Sanders has been devoting increasing portions of his speeches to Bloomberg through the weekend as past comments drip out daily on social media, and campaign surrogates like New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York Mayor Bill De Blasio have done the same.
Bloomberg had so far largely ignored his Democratic rivals in favor of Trump. But Bloomberg fired back at Sanders on Monday and promised he will be more aggressive in responding from now on.
“Mike is in this race to defeat Donald Trump, and he’s the Democratic candidate who can get that done. This campaign will not sit idly by and allow these false attacks to stand without response,” campaign manager Kevin Sheekey said in a statement issued Monday afternoon.
Bloomberg’s campaign posted a digital video showing derogatory online comments posted by so-called “Bernie Bros,” the ardent fans of Sanders who sometimes post harassing responses to Sanders critics. The video includes a clip of Sanders saying, “It is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse” -- followed by the words “Really? Really,” appearing on the screen.
Sheekey also complained that both the Sanders and Trump campaigns took his farming remark out of context by dropping the first sentence when they posted the remark from 2016.
The full remark was, “The agrarian society lasted 3,000 years and we could teach processes. I could teach anybody, even people in this room, no offense intended, to be a farmer. It’s a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn. You could learn that,” Bloomberg said.
It was “shameful” that Sanders and Trump deployed the same tactics, “but the reason is clear,” Sheekey said. “At this point, the primary is Bernie’s to lose, and ours to win.”
On Sunday in Carson City, Nevada, Sanders joked that Bloomberg sees the presidency as a rich man’s hobby, and likened him to Trump. “He says, ‘Hey, I used to be mayor. I have the time now, I know what I want to do, I want to become the president of the United States!’”
Other candidates, including Biden and Klobuchar, have also been increasingly focused on Bloomberg as he rises in the polls.
Klobuchar, whose campaign has surged after a third-place finish in New Hampshire, has acknowledged Bloomberg’s funding advantage but said she’s looking forward to debating him on stage.
“I cannot beat Michael Bloomberg on the airwaves, big surprise, even though we have gotten in millions and millions of dollars,” Klobuchar told reporters in Las Vegas last week. “I think he should be on the debate stage, because I can’t beat him on the airwaves. But I can beat him on the debate stage.”
Biden, who referred to Bloomberg as “a former Republican who just turned Democrat,” said Monday on MSNBC that Bloomberg “can buy every ad he wants but he can’t, in fact, wipe away his record from dealing with stop and frisk to his foreign policy assertions and the like.”
Bloomberg has responded most to criticism about stop and frisk, which he has said was an attempt to lower the city’s murder rate but a court ruled was unconstitutional. He has said he concluded the policy was wrong and apologized for it before he announced his campaign. He has referenced it multiple times since then, even adding a section about it in his stump speech on Saturday.
On Monday, Bloomberg released two new television ads highlighting his plans to improve black economic progress and on criminal justice reform. Last week, he launched his “Mike for Black America” outreach in Houston with an extended discussion about stop and frisk and an endorsement from Mayor Sylvester Turner, who is black.
Turner introduced Bloomberg the event and said stop and frisk would have been “a non-starter for me,” but he accepted Bloomberg’s public apology and acknowledgment the policy was wrong. “You judge people by their ability to ‘fess up and then work collectively to move you forward,” he said.
(Updates with Bloomberg qualifying for debate in eighth paragraph)
--With assistance from Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou and Jennifer Epstein.
To contact the reporters on this story: Mark Niquette in Columbus at firstname.lastname@example.org;Emma Kinery in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at firstname.lastname@example.org, Craig Gordon
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