Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks during a campaign event in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the US, February 12 2020. Picture: REUTERS/DOUG STRICKLAND
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks during a campaign event in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the US, February 12 2020. Picture: REUTERS/DOUG STRICKLAND

Washington — Democratic presidential candidates sharpened their attacks on billionaire rival Michael Bloomberg on Sunday as moderates battled to elbow their way to the top of a crowded pack.

Bloomberg — who skipped the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary but has been trying to make up for it with huge spending on television ads — has faced increasingly sharp criticism, much of it over past positions and comments being criticised as crude, racist or misogynistic.

"Voters are looking for a president who can lead us out of the days when it was just commonplace or accepted to have these kinds of sexist or discriminatory attitudes," Pete Buttigieg, the moderate former mayor from Indiana, said Sunday on Fox. "This is our chance to do something different."

Senator Amy Klobuchar, another Democratic moderate who had an unexpectedly strong showing in New Hampshire, accused Bloomberg of using his onslaught of TV ads to "hide behind the airwaves".

The race for the Democratic nomination remains exceptionally unsettled after Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has edged to the front in the two first states, slightly ahead of Buttigieg but without a commanding lead.

Those early states, Iowa and New Hampshire, are small and predominantly white.

The next two — Nevada on February 22 and South Carolina a week later — are far more diverse, as are the 14 states voting on "Super Tuesday", March 3, raising the possibility of a shakeup in the Democratic order.

 Struggling for the black vote 

Both Klobuchar and Buttigieg have struggled to draw strong support from African Americans, a key voting demographic.

Asked about that, Klobuchar told ABC that "my name identification in states outside of the early few states was not that high, simply because I didn't have the money like Bloomberg to run more ads".

South Carolina congressman James Clyburn, who is African American, said that while former vice-president Joe Biden had been leading strongly in the state, with its large black population, both Buttigieg and billionaire businessman Tom Steyer were drawing ever-larger crowds, adding to the uncertainty.

"Steyer is doing an incredible job," he said on CNN's State of the Union.

In Nevada, a poll Friday by the Las Vegas Review-Journal placed Sanders solidly in first, at 25 points, seven points ahead of Biden, but with four others knotted in a statistical tie for third: Senator Elizabeth Warren, Steyer, Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

Bloomberg, who entered the race belatedly, made a strategic decision to skip the early states and bank on a strong result in the Super Tuesday states, where he has spent most heavily on advertising.

'It can't erase your record'

Biden assailed that approach on Sunday, saying of Bloomberg and the former New York mayor's fortune, "$60bn can buy you a lot of advertising, but it can't erase your record."

He pointed to Bloomberg's policing policies in New York seen as aggressive and unfairly targeting young blacks and Latinos, his failure to endorse Barack Obama in 2008 and his reported support for discriminatory housing policies.

"I'm anxious to debate Michael," Biden said on NBC's Meet the Press.

There are signs that Bloomberg's saturation ad approach might pay off, however, at least in some states.

Polls on Friday gave him a slender lead in populous Florida, put him in a tie with Sanders for second in Georgia (behind Biden), and gave him a strong 10% of the vote in Texas.

But with his rise has come far sharper scrutiny. Reporting in the New York Times and Washington Post has brought up past alleged comments that were crude, sexually charged and demeaning to women — troubling for a candidate in the #MeToo era and in a party where women are the majority voters.

Bloomberg has since dismissed the remarks as jokes, said he did not recall making them or, in a few cases, apologised for them.

The Times reported that Bloomberg was sued in 1997 for allegedly telling an employee in his big financial information and media company, after learning she was pregnant, to "kill it", while grumbling about the large number of pregnant women in the company.

The suit was settled without admission of guilt; Bloomberg has denied making the remark.

Still, the more intense scrutiny could slow his rise.

"I think he is going to have to answer for that," Buttigieg said on Fox.

And Klobuchar told CNN Bloomberg needs to address the allegations directly.

"You can't hide behind the airwaves and just have huge airwave buys," she said. "I know I can't beat him on the airwaves, but I can beat him on the debate stage."

The party's next debate is slated for Wednesday in Las Vegas. Bloomberg's showing in polls has fallen just short of qualifying him to take part, but if he does make the cut for the first time, dramatic exchanges seem certain.


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