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EDITORIAL: Michael Bloomberg struggles in the trenches

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg has thrust himself into the race with massive TV buys and a coordinated social media campaign. But his deep pockets failed to shield him from the rough-and-tumble of his first debate appearance Wednesday night in Las Vegas.

Mr. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, found himself under attack during the event at Paris Las Vegas, an indication that the remaining candidates see him as a legitimate threat. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist who has emerged as the Democratic front-runner, also drew plenty of attention.

The primary antagonist was Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign has fallen off a cliff after poor showings in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Her strategy was clear Wednesday night: Stand out by aggressively challenging her five fellow Democrats on stage.

Mr. Bloomberg hasn’t been shy about criticizing his party’s lurch to the hard left and has positioned himself as a business-friendly moderate who can defeat President Donald Trump. His poll numbers have risen significantly in recent weeks, as some in the party worry about the eventual nominee being too far out of the mainstream. But it’s one thing to message through controlled media; it’s quite another to jump into the trenches.

It didn’t take long for Sen. Warren to try to blunt Mr. Bloomberg’s momentum by bringing up controversial comments he has made over the years regarding women, crime and minorities. Inexplicably, Mr. Bloomberg appeared unprepared for the assault, so Sen. Warren moved in with the shiv.

“So I’d like to talk about who we’re running against,” Sen. Warren said, “a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Michael Bloomberg.” She later moved on to hammer him for settling allegations of sexual harassment with financial deals and nondisclosure agreements.

Overall, the candidates offered no new policy proposals and broke little ground. The debate was noteworthy primarily for Mr. Bloomberg’s presence and its prickly tone. The latter reflects the campaign entering a crucial stage.

Whether Sen. Warren’s strategy can revive her flagging campaign remains to be seen, but she was clearly on the offensive. Sen. Sanders was his usual gruff, unapologetic self. He avoided any major pitfalls and remains the favorite in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses. Former Vice President Joe Biden tried to stay above the fray, but is still struggling to get off the mat. Pete Buttigieg appears no match for the Sanders machine, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar performed well in trying to stake out a middle ground but has yet to sustain traction with voters.

As for Mr. Bloomberg … well, he might want to brush up on his defense — and stockpile flak jackets as Super Tuesday nears.

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