From the opening bell, Democrats savaged New York billionaire Mike Bloomberg and raised pointed questions about Bernie Sanders’ take-no-prisoners politics during a contentious debate Wednesday night that threatened to further muddy the party’s urgent quest to defeat President Donald Trump.
Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who was once a Republican, was forced to defend his record and past comments related to race, gender and his personal wealth in an occasionally rocky debate stage debut. Sanders, meanwhile, tried to beat back pointed questions about his embrace of democratic socialism and his health following a heart attack last year.
Sanders, a progressive senator who has surged to the top of polls, criticized Bloomberg's support for "stop-and-frisk" police policies as mayor that "went after African-American and Latino people in an outrageous way."
Bloomberg has long struggled with the legacy of the divisive tactic, which encouraged police to stop and search pedestrians and ensnared disproportionate numbers of blacks and Latinos.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is banking on his support among African Americans to revive his flagging candidacy, said stop and frisk had thrown "close to 5 million young black men up against the wall."
Bloomberg said he was "worried" and "embarrassed" about his past support for stop-and-frisk and that he had apologized for supporting it.
But his rivals were not willing to let him off the hook.
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"It's not whether you apologize or not, it's the policy... And it was in fact a violation of every right people have," Biden said.
After a discussion of Sanders' economic proposals, such as requiring that a share of large companies is owned by employees, Bloomberg said he could not think of an easier way to get Trump re-elected.
"It's ridiculous. We're not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that, other countries tried - it was called communism and just didn't work," he said. Sanders called it "a cheap shot."
"We are living, in many ways, in a socialist society right now," Sanders added. "Problem is, as Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us, we have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor."
Bloomberg fired back. "The best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses," he said, referring to Sanders.
Pete Buttigieg, the moderate former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who edged Sanders in Iowa and narrowly lost to him in New Hampshire, attacked both Sanders and Bloomberg.
"Most Americans don't see where they fit if they have to choose between a socialist who thinks money is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power," Buttigieg said.
In an apparent jab at Bloomberg, formerly a Republican, he said: "Let's put forward somebody who's actually a Democrat."
Biden said on MSNBC that he told Bloomberg as they left the debate stage: "Welcome to the party, man."