Democrats Make Their Case At Fiery Debate in Las Vegas

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Six Democrats took the stage tonight in Las Vegas, Nevada for the ninth presidential primary debate and made some big gambles as they made their case to voters once again on why they believe they are the best candidate to take on President Donald Trump in 2020.

Tonight was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's first appearance at a debate after he attracted 19% in a recent national poll. The other five Democrats on stage did their best to draw a contrast between their campaigns and the 78-year-old billionaire who has been criticized for "buying" his way into the debate Wednesday night.

Here's Who Qualified For Tonight's Debate

  • Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders
  • Former New York City Mayor Micheal Bloomberg
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren
  • Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar

Both Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and billionaire Tom Steyer are both still running for president, however, they did not qualify for Wednesday night's debate. Candidates

"NBC Nightly News" and "Dateline NBC" anchor Lester Holt will be joined by "Meet the Press" moderator, Chuck Todd, NBC News Chief White House Correspondent Hallie Jackson, Noticias Telemundo Senior Correspondent Vanessa Hauc and Jon Ralston of The Nevada Independent.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Las Vegas Ahead Of Nevada Caucuses

The first question of the night went to current front-runner, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, as the moderators sought to compare the Vermont Senator's message of Democratic Socialism versus the more moderate options, such as the one offered by the billionaire former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg.

“I don't think there's any chance of the senator [Sanders] beating President Trump,” Bloomberg said. “If he goes and is the candidate, we will have Donald Trump for another four years, and we can't stand that.”

It was open season on Bloomberg at tonight's debate in Las Vegas, as Senator Elizabeth Warren took the first shot at the former mayor, for his alleged comments about women he used to work with.

"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.

"Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women and of supporting racist policies like red lining and stop and frisk. Look, I'll support whoever the Democratic nominee is, but understand this, Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another."

Bloomberg did not respond to Warren's critique.

Biden made his pitch to voters, citing a poll conducted by NBC News that said he was the best candidate equipped to beat Donald Trump.

"The mayor [Bloomberg] says that he has a great record," Biden began. "He had stop and frisk, throwing close to 5 million young black men up against a wall. And when we came along in our administration, the President -- Obama -- and said, we're going to send in a moderator -- a mediator to stop it, he said, 'that's unnecessary.'"

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar was the next candidate to take on Bloomberg's record, referencing a campaign memo sent by Bloomberg's that suggested other candidates drop out so Bloomberg could stop Sanders from getting the nod in 2020.

"I have been told many times to wait my turn and step aside and I’m not going to do that," Klobuchar said. "I think we need something different than Donald Trump. I don’t think you look at Donald Trump and say we need someone richer."

With Bernie Sanders leading the candidates in the national polls, moderators sought to define the senator's brand of socialism, asking the other candidates on stage what they thought of the Senator's proposed policies.

Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg made it clear he didn't think America was ready for a self-declared socialist or another billionaire in the White House, saying Democrats needed to 'wake up.'

"Most Americans don't see where they fit if they've got to choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power," Buttigieg said. "Let's put forward somebody who actually lives and works in a middle-class neighborhood in an industrial midwestern city. Let's put forward somebody who's actually a Democrat."

Buttigieg went on to call Sanders' policies' "polarizing."

"Look, we shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out," Buttigieg added. "We can do better."

“If speaking to the needs and the pain of a long-neglected working class is polarizing, I think you got the wrong word,” Sanders said as he went on to criticize the former mayor for accepting contributions from billionaire donors.

Sanders was also taken to task for harassment by his supporters on social media. The senator pointed to his vast sea of support, calling 99.9% of them, "decent human beings."

"We have over 10.6 million people on Twitter and 99.9% of them are decent human beings, are working people, are people who believe in justice, compassion and love. And if there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack trade union leaders, I disown those people. They are not part of our movement," Sanders said.

However, Buttigieg did not let Sanders off easy, saying the senator should accept "some responsibility" for the online attacks made by his supporters.

“I think you have to accept some responsibility and ask yourself what it is about your campaign in particular that seems to be motivating this behavior more than others,” Buttigieg said. 

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Las Vegas Ahead Of Nevada Caucuses

One of the biggest issues for Democrats in 2020 continues to be health care, with each candidate making their case 'Medicare for All' or some variation of that. Warren criticized her fellow candidates for their lack of details on their healthcare plans, pointing to Buttigieg's plan as a "power point."

"Mayor Buttigieg really has a slogan that was thought up by his consultants to paper over a thin version of a plan that would leave millions of people unable to afford their health care. It's not a plan, it's a power point. And Amy's plan is even less. It's like a post-it note, insert plan here," Warren says. "You can't simply stand here and trash an idea to give health care coverage to everyone without having realistic plan of your own," Warren said.

Senator Klobuchar took offense to the "post-it" dig from Warren, seeing as the ubiquitous office supply was invested in her state.

"So my plan is a public option. And according to all the studies out there, it would reduce premiums for 12 million people immediately" Klobuchar said. " It would expand coverage for about that same number. It is a significant thing. It is what Barack Obama wanted to do from the very beginning."

Sanders, who has infamously said he "wrote the damn bill," responded to the attacks on Medicare for All and its record in the senate.

"Maybe it is finally time that we said, as a nation, enough is enough, the function of a rational health care system is not to make the pharmaceutical industry and the drug companies rich. It is to provide health care to all people as a human right, not a privilege," Sanders said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden pointed to his support for Obamacare and expressed support to expanding the former president's signature policy, while taking the opportunity to attack Bloomberg for his lack of support for the plan.

"From the moment we passed that signature legislation, Mike called it a disgrace, number one," he said. "Number two, Trump decided to get rid of it," Biden said. "Number three, my friends here came up with another plan. But they don't tell you, when you ask Bernie how much it cost, the last time he said that I think it was on your show, he said, we'll find out. We'll find out."

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked about his support for the controversial "stop-and-frisk" policy that was enacted under his tenure as mayor.

"If I go back and look at my time in office, the one thing that I'm really worried about, embarrassed about, was how it turned out with stop and frisk," Bloomberg said. "When I got into office, there was 650 murders a year in New York City. And I thought that my first responsibility was to give people the right to live. That's the basic right of everything."

"And when we discovered, I discovered, that we were doing many, many, too many stop and frisks, we cut 95% of it out," he added. "And I’ve sat down with a bunch of African-American clergy and business people to talk about this, to try to learn. I've talked to a number of kids who had been stopped. And I'm trying to - was trying to understand how we change our policies so we can keep the city safe."

Biden jumped on Bloomberg's comments, calling the policy "abhorrent."

"And it's not whether he apologized or not, it's the policy. The policy was abhorrent. And it was in fact a violation of every right people have," Biden said.

Warren piled on to Bloomberg, arguing the 'stop-and-frisk' policy had gotten out of control and targeted communities of color.

"When the mayor says that he apologized, listen very closely to the apology. The language he used is about stop and frisk. It's about how it turned out. Now 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. It targeted black and brown men from the beginning," she said.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Las Vegas Ahead Of Nevada Caucuses

One of the oldest candidates on stage, Senator Bernie Sanders, would not commit to releasing his full medical records at any point during the primary, despite the fact the senator suffered a heart attack earlier this year.

"We released the full report about the heart attack," Sanders said. "All of my history, medical history, and furthermore, we released reports from two leading Vermont cardiologists who described my situation and, by the way, who said 'Bernie Sanders is more than able to deal with the stress and vigor of being President of the United States.'"

“The one area that maybe Mayor Bloomberg and I share is, you have two stents as well,” Sanders said

Bloomberg pointed out that his stents were put in 25-years ago.

Warren turned the conversation back to stories about women who made claims against Bloomberg for having a hostile work environment and had non-disclosure agreements with. Warren asked him whether he would release those women from the contracts.

"I'm sorry, the question is, are the women bound by being muzzled by you? You could release them from that immediately. Because understand, this is not just a question of the mayor's character," she said.

Bloomberg touted his company as being one of the best companies in the country for women to work now, adding that he had female executives at his company and at the Bloomberg Foundation.

"I hope you heard his defense. I've been nice to some women," Warren said. "That just doesn't cut it...The Mayor has to stand on his record. And what we need to know is exactly what's lurking out there. He has gotten some number of women -- dozens, who knows -- to sign nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace."

Warren hammered Bloomberg on his record with women, but the former mayor refused to commit to releasing those women from the agreements.

“None of them accuse me of doing anything other than maybe they didn't like a joke I told,” Bloomberg said. “The agreements between two parties that wanted to keep it quiet and that's up to them. They signed those agreements and we'll live with it.” 

"I said we're not going to get -- to end these agreements because they were made consensually and they have every right to expect that they will stay private," Bloomberg said.

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The subject of economic inequality was also raised, with the moderators posing a question to Bloomberg about a comment made by Senator Sanders last year about how "billionaires should not exist."

"I can’t speak for all billionaires, all I know is that I’ve been very lucky, made a lot of money and I’m giving it all away to make this country better," Bloomberg said. "And a good chunk of it goes to the Democratic Party as well."

"Should you have earned that much money," he was asked by the moderators.

"Yes. I worked very hard for it. And I'll giving it away," he said.

Bloomberg also pointed to a perceived hypocrisy by Sanders for his ownership of three homes.

"I work in Washington, house one. I live in Burlington, house two. And like thousands of other Vermonters, I have a summer camp. Forgive me for that. Where is your home? Which tax haven do you have your home?" Sanders said.

"New York City, thank you very much," Bloomberg said. "And I pay all my taxes. And I'm happy to do it because I get something for it."

Sanders fired back at Bloomberg's comments, calling it a 'cheap shot' by the former mayor.

"We have a grotesque and immoral distribution of wealth and income. Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans," Sanders said. "That’s wrong, that’s immoral, that should not be the case when we got a half a million people sleeping out on the streets, when we kids who cannot afford to go to college, when we have 45 million people dealing with student debt."

"I can't think of a way to make it easier for Donald Trump to get reelected than listening to this conversation. This is ridiculous. We're not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism and it just didn't work," Bloomberg said.

Warren responded to Bloomberg, pitching her two percent wealth tax.

"It is a question of values. Do we want to invest in Mr. Bloomberg or an entire generation?," she asks.

As the debate was coming to an end, moderators allowed candidates one minute for their closing statements. Each candidate pitched their website and solicited donations from voters as many on stage delivered a shortened version of their stump speech.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar was given the first opportunity to speak, and she used her time to talk about the fact that while Democrats may seem divided on stage tonight, there was something far bigger uniting them all.

"We need a candidate that can bring people with her. Yes, a fired up Democratic base, but also independents and moderate Republicans," Klobuchar said. "And I have done that every single time I have won every race down to fourth grade. A lot of boasting up here, so I thought I'd add that. Secondly, you need someone who can govern. I have passed over 100 bills as the lead Democrat. And third, you need someone who has the heart to be the president. They were talking a lot about heart conditions up here. We have a president right now that doesn't have a heart."

Former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg was next and he began with an invitation for voters to visit his website, adding that unlike other candidates, he wasn't looking for their donations.

"This is a manager job and Donald Trump is not a manager. This is a job where you have to build teams. He doesn't have teams so he makes decisions without knowing what's going or the implications for what he does. We cannot run the railroad this way. The country has to pull together and understand that the people that we elect, and it's not just the president of the United States, they should have experience. They should have credentials."

Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg positioned himself as a centrist option for Democrats who might be uncomfortable with Sanders or Bloomberg.

"if you look at the choice between a revolution or the status quo and you don't see where you fit in that picture, then join us," Buttigieg said. "We cannot afford to lean on the same Washington play book. We cannot afford to alienate half the country. We must step forward into the future in order to win and in order to govern a country that will be facing issues, the likes of which we barely thought of just a few years ago."

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke about her career and what made her different from the other politicians on stage, starting with the fact, she hasn't been a politician for as long as the other candidates on stage.

"I, for years, have fought for unions to say the way we're going to restructure this economy is we're going to make it easier to join a union and get more power into unions. To fight for students who have been cut out of opportunity over and over because of the rising cost of an education. For me, I am, I've been a politician the shortest time, but I've been the one out fighting for families the longest time. I promise you this. Give me a chance. I'll go to the White House. And I'll fight for your family," said Warren.

Protesters initially interrupted former Vice President Joe Biden's closing statement. It was unclear what they were protesting, as the audience chanted, "Go! Go! Go!"

Once they were cleared, Biden continued, telling voters about how he knew what it was like to be knocked down.

"I'm running because so many people are being left behind. People I grew up in Scranton when my dad lost his job, lost his house, had to move. We moved to Claymont. We found ourselves in a position where we had little ability to get anything done. And my dad worked like hell. I learned a lot. I've been knocked down a lot. I know what it's like to be knocked down. But we have to get up and provide safety and security for the American people. Right here in Nevada, the site of the most significant mass murder in American history. Guns. Our kids are getting sent to school having to hide under desks, learn how to run down corridors to avoid being shot. It's immoral."

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had the final words of the night, reiterating a common message in his campaign that "real change never takes place from the top on down."

"All of us are united in defeating the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country. That we agree on. But where we don't agree, I think is why we are today the only major country on Earth not to guarantee health care for all people. Why three people own more wealth than the bottom half of America when 500,000 people sleep sleep out on the street. Why hundreds of thousands of bright young kids can't afford to go to college and 45 million remain in student debt."

Nevada has also seen a strong turnout in the four-day early voting period, with the final day occurring on Saturday. The following week on Feb. 29, voters in North Carolina will have their say, as the fourth nominating contest in the 2020 Democratic primary. After that comes the so-called 'Super Tuesday' on March 3, in which Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia will all hold their presidential primaries on that date.

Democrats will get their next chance to plead their case to voters on Feb. 25, as CBS News as the Congressional Black Caucus Institute host the tenth debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina.

Photos: Getty Images

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