(Bloomberg) -- Michael Bloomberg came under sustained attack in a spirited Democratic debate Wednesday that saw Elizabeth Warren compare him to President Donald Trump in his treatment of women and Bernie Sanders assail him over his attitude toward minorities.
The focus on Bloomberg deflected some of the heat that Sanders might have otherwise gotten from his rivals as the current front-runner in the race, though he didn't completely escape criticism, particularly from Pete Buttigieg.
Warren was aggressive in lashing out at Bloomberg, whose recent rise in the polls has shaken up the Democratic presidential race.
"I'd like to talk about who we're running against -- a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And no I'm not talking about Donald Trump, I'm talking about Mayor Bloomberg," Warren said, arguing that the country shouldn't swap "one arrogant billionaire for another."
She called on Bloomberg to release women from non-disclosure agreements signed when they settled complaints against his company citing sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.
Bloomberg said that none of the women who filed complaints against his company accused him "of doing anything other than maybe they didn't like the joke I told."
He reiterated that he will not revoke the non-disclosure agreements. "They signed these agreements and that's what we're going to live with," Bloomberg said.
(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
The debate is coming at a pivotal moment for all the candidates. The Nevada caucuses are on Saturday followed a week later by a primary in South Carolina. Bloomberg doesn't appear on a ballot until 14 states and territories vote March 3 on Super Tuesday, including the big delegate prizes of California and Texas.
Many of the candidates assailed the former New York mayor on the stop-and-frisk policy carried out by the police department when he led the city.
Sanders called the policy an "outrageous" affront to blacks and Latinos that will alienate voters Democrats need to defeat Trump.
Joe Biden, who has lost some of his support from black voters to Bloomberg in recent polls, recalled that the Obama administration sent Justice Department monitors to New York because of the policy. He called stop-and-frisk "abhorrent" and "a violation of every right people have."
Bloomberg, who made a public apology for the policy a week before he entered the race, said he was "worried about, embarrassed about" how the stop-and-frisk policy turned out.
Warren argued that Bloomberg's apologies have been insufficient and too focused on how the program looks in retrospect. "This isn't about how it turned out, this is about what it was designed to do to begin with, it targeted communities of color," she said. "The apology has to start with the intent of the plan as it was put together and the willful ignorance day by day by day."
Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar also joined in the attacks on Bloomberg, though Buttigieg targeted Sanders as well. He called Sanders and Bloomberg "the two most polarizing candidates" in the race.
Bloomberg responded that he's the only candidate who can beat Trump in November and do an effective job as president. He was direct in his criticism of Sanders, who he views as his main competitor for the Democratic nomination.
"I don't think there's any chance of the senator beating President Trump," Bloomberg said. "I know how to take on an arrogant con man like Donald Trump."
Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who are competing as the centrist alternatives to Biden and Bloomberg, engaged in brief but bitter exchanges.
Klobuchar was asked to explain her recent stumble in an interview in which she was asked to give the name of Mexico's president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and couldn't.
Buttigieg, who correctly answered the question, said her inability to answer the question was evidence that she didn't have the right knowledge and experience to be president. Klobuchar, who in the past has attacked Buttigieg on his inexperience, responded: "Are you trying to say I'm dumb? Are you mocking me?"
Sanders faced questions about whether his progressive policies are too extreme for a general-election campaign. There's rising concern within the party establishment that the self-described democratic socialist won't be able to defeat Trump and could be a drag on Democratic candidates running for lower offices.
The candidates sparred over capitalism after the moderators asked Klobuchar to respond to a tweet from Sanders that said billionaires shouldn't exist."I believe in capitalism but the goal of someone in government and the president of the United States should be a check on that," Klobuchar said, before criticizing the tax code for favoring the wealthy and the rich.
Sanders used his comment as an opportunity to criticize Bloomberg.
"We have a grotesque and immoral distribution of wealth and income," Sanders said. "Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. That's wrong and that's immoral."
Bloomberg said he can't speak for all billionaires, but that he's been lucky, he's made a lot of money and given a lot away -- "and a lot of it has gone to the Democratic Party."
He said he had no apologies having built a fortune and warned that the debate was veering in a direction that would turn voters away.
"I can't think of a way that would make it easier for Donald Trump to get re-elected than listening to this conversation. It's ridiculous," Bloomberg said. "We're not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that, other countries tried that. It's called communism, and it just didn't work."
Many voters were seeing Bloomberg live for the first time instead of in an ad on television or on social media. Those ads, paid for with Bloomberg's personal fortune, have fueled a rise in polls.
Those polling numbers -- he was in a tight third place at 14% to Sanders' 32% and Joe Biden's 16% in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday -- qualified him to join five of his Democratic rivals for the ninth debate of the primary season, sponsored by NBC and the Nevada Independent.
Bloomberg, 78, served three terms as New York's mayor, but he's untested on a crowded debate stage, something that's become routine for the other candidates.
Sanders, 78 and Buttigieg, 38, are neck-and-neck in the delegate count after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But Sanders is poised to pull ahead with the Nevada caucuses, as Buttigieg has yet to gain traction with minority voters, who'll play a much bigger role there and in South Carolina the following week.
Both Biden, 77, and Warren, 70, are attempting to right struggling campaigns. Warren's fortunes have sunk as Sanders' rose, leaving her with a third-place finish in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire. Likewise, Biden has tumbled from his perch as front-runner as both Buttigieg and Bloomberg have made gains.
Biden has promised a first- or second-place finish in Nevada and wants to show his campaign is still viable after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Klobuchar, 59, is looking to repeat her performance in the last debate, which served as a springboard to a third-place finish in New Hampshire. But she's lagged in fund-raising and, as a result, the ability to build a national campaign that will be needed to be competitive in the 14-state Super Tuesday round of primaries.
The other billionaire in the race, former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, did not qualify under the new rules for the first time. He has his best chance to collect delegates in South Carolina, where recent polls show him running in third place behind Biden and Sanders.
--With assistance from Ryan Teague Beckwith.
To contact the reporters on this story: Tyler Pager in Las Vegas at firstname.lastname@example.org;Jennifer Epstein in Las Vegas at email@example.com;Mark Niquette in Las Vegas at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at email@example.com, Magan Crane
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