After fiery Democratic debate, Bloomberg seeks reset as rivals hit campaign trail

WASHINGTON/LAS VEGAS (Reuters) – The Democratic presidential contenders began a frantic dash for votes on Thursday, with big-spending billionaire Michael Bloomberg seeking to move past a bruising debate performance while several of his rivals jockeyed to be the moderate alternative to liberal U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.

There are just two days to go before the presidential caucuses in Nevada. After that, contests loom in South Carolina, followed by Super Tuesday on March 3, when voters in 14 states, including California, Utah and Colorado, cast ballots.

The blistering attacks launched on Wednesday night at Bloomberg – over his record on race, history of sexist comments and use of his fortune to push his way up in opinion polls – could damage his pitch that he has the best chance of beating Republican President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 election.

The former New York City mayor, who entered the race late and will not be on primary ballots until Super Tuesday, has tried to position himself as a moderate alternative to Sanders, a democratic socialist.

Bloomberg’s campaign moved to stem the fallout early on Thursday by announcing new endorsements from Congress members from New York, New Jersey and California, after arguing on Wednesday night that he was “just warming up,” and promised a stronger performance at next week’s debate in South Carolina.

Then, in a nod to U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s charge during the debate that Democrats nominating Bloomberg to take on Trump would be pitting “one arrogant billionaire for another,” he told a rally in Utah: “We could not be more different; I bill myself as the un-Trump.”

“Look, the real winner in the debate last night was Donald Trump,” Bloomberg added.

Meanwhile Warren, who landed early jabs during the debate related to Bloomberg’s use of nondisclosure agreements for women at his company and his support while mayor of stop-and-frisk policing policies, continued on her offensive.

“The Democrats should not appoint someone who has a history of embracing racially outrageous practices,” Warren told ABC’s daytime show “The View” when asked why she focused her attacks on Bloomberg rather than Trump.

“We don’t know how many times he’s been charged with discrimination against women, or with sexual harassment, and he’s just shoveled some of his money in to cover it up,” Warren added.

Rivals Sanders, Warren, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg all leaped at the chance during the debate to go after media mogul Bloomberg, who has surged in polls by spending hundreds of millions of dollars out of his own pocket on a TV ad blitz.

Warren’s campaign said it set fundraising records on Wednesday by bringing in $425,000 during the first hour of the debate and $2.8 million over the course of the day. Sanders’ campaign likewise announced it had raised a record $2.7 million on Wednesday.

Buttigieg’s campaign argued in a strategy memo on Thursday that Bloomberg’s debate performance showed that the former mayor was the “strongest alternative” to defeat Sanders before he amassed an “insurmountable delegate lead.”

Initial results from the Iowa caucuses, the nation’s first nominating contest, gave Buttigieg a one-delegate lead over Sanders. The two rivals won an equal number of delegates from the second contest in New Hampshire.

Nevada’s caucuses are the third contest in the state-by-state race to find a challenger to Trump. South Carolina holds its primary on Feb. 29.

Buttigieg has a town hall meeting and a fundraiser scheduled for Thursday in Los Angeles. Warren and Biden will campaign in Nevada before participating in CNN town halls from Las Vegas. Klobuchar has a campaign event in Colorado.

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