WASHINGTON - Before former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined his fellow presidential hopefuls on the debate stage for the first time Wednesday, his campaign had a not-so-subtle message for the other center-left candidates.
They should stop acting like spoilers and let Bloomberg take on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders before it's too late to stop him from winning the Democratic nomination.
The argument, laid out in a memo by Bloomberg's campaign aides, didn't go over well.
Former Vice President Joe Biden pointed to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showing he'd do best in a matchup against President Donald Trump.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said voters don't "look at Donald Trump and say, 'We need someone richer in the White House.'"
Pete Buttigieg agreed with Bloomberg that there should be one alternative to Sanders, but said he - and not Bloomberg - is the obvious choice
"Maybe he should step aside for the person who's got the most delegates," Buttigieg, in a Fox News interview, said of the small lead he has over Sanders from the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire.
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Matt Grossmann, director of Michigan State University's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, said there's a lot of merit to Bloomberg's argument that Sanders is the most likely nominee, in part because Democrats who want a different candidate haven't coalesced around an alternative. But that's also because no alternative candidate has a clear case for why it should be them.
"Everyone is putting forward their best argument," Grossmann said. "None of them sound particularly good to me as to why the other candidates should get out."
Bloomberg's case, laid out in a memo that was first reported by Axios, is that Sanders could come out of Super Tuesday with an insurmountable lead. Bloomberg, who is skipping competing in the first four contests but has been spending heavily elsewhere, is best positioned after Sanders to pick up delegates in those states, his aides argue.
"Today, Mike Bloomberg presented himself as the leading alternative to Bernie Sanders," campaign manager Kevin Sheekey said in a statement after Wednesday's debate, despite a shaky performance by Bloomberg. "It took Mike just three months to build a stronger campaign than the rest of the field had built in more than a year...He was just warming up tonight."
Josh Putnam, a political scientist who writes the blog FrontloadingHQ, which tracks the details of the primary process, said Bloomberg's memo is a "somewhat convincing" snapshot in time. But it doesn't take into account how things could change after Nevada's caucuses Saturday or South Carolina's primary at the end of the month.
"Those events are potentially likely to change the dynamics of the race and change that rosy scenario that the Bloomberg folks painted," Putnam said. "That's not even counting how things are affected by last night's debate performance."
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Klobuchar, who brought up the memo at the beginning of the debate, showed how galling it was to the candidates who have been campaigning for the past year.
"I don't think that's really the way to make friends and influence people," she told Fox News after the debate. "I was just shocked ... We've worked hard. We've got strong campaigns."
Buttigieg countered Bloomberg with his own warning about what could happen if the dynamics of the race don't change soon.
"We've got to wake up as a party," he said at the debate. "We could wake up two weeks from today, the day after Super Tuesday, and the only candidates left standing will be Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, the two most polarizing figures on this stage."
A memo countering Bloomberg's that Buttigieg's campaign put out Thursday argues Buttigieg is the only candidate who has shown - through his delegate lead from Iowa - that he can beat Sanders.
In the debate, Bloomberg pitched that he's the best general election candidate because he's a New Yorker.
"I know how to take on an arrogant conman like Donald Trump that comes from New York," Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg entered the race in November after Biden's campaign showed signs of the struggles that became more apparent when he came in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire.
Biden had started with the strongest potential coalition - African Americans, white moderates and older voters - to defeat Sanders. But as Biden's support has dropped, Grossmann said, it's unclear whether another candidate can reconstitute that coalition.
And even if all but one center-left candidate left the race, Sanders could still win. He may be more popular with the most liberal voters but he's not unpopular with moderates, Grossmann said.
"It's not the case that you just add up the moderates and you get to a potential majority," he said.
In fact, a Monmouth University poll released Thursday shows Sanders not only leading in California, but growing his support when pitted solely against Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg or Klobuchar.
"Sanders may get a decent delegate haul in the currently crowded field," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "But if it comes down to a two-person contest in California, Sanders could rack up two-thirds of available delegates and be well on his way to the nomination."
The longer the race remains crowded, the more likely it is that no one will amass a majority of delegates before the party's July convention. If that happens, the party officials known as superdelegates would get to vote.
While the superdelegates wouldn't have to back the leading candidate, not doing so could cause an uproar within the party, especially among Sanders' supporters.
When the candidates were asked at the debate about the possibility of a contested convention, only one emphasized that the nomination should go to the candidate who showed up with the most votes.
"I think," Sanders said, "the will of the people should prevail."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mike Bloomberg: Other Democrats say he should step aside, not them