National

Democratic Presidential Candidates Kick Off Debate in Las Vega

LAS VEGAS — What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas — except for all of the goings-on at Wednesday night’s Democratic debate, which could impact the dynamics of the contest heading into Nevada’s caucuses this weekend.

The six-person lineup of candidates who qualified for the two-hour debate, hosted by NBC News/MSNBC, includes Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren — and a newcomer to the stage: Mike Bloomberg, who is growing in popularity in national polls.

And the fireworks — in particular, between Bloomberg and Sanders, who leads in national polls — are sure to fly.

The two campaigns have increasingly painted the contest for the Democratic nomination as a two-man race (several polls out this week have shown Bloomberg surging nationally into the runner-up position behind Sanders). Each views the other as an ideal foil — a self-described democratic socialist calling for a “revolution” to take on the wealthy elite, and an economically centrist billionaire who preaches the virtues of capitalism.

As Bloomberg has climbed in the polls, he has faced increasing criticism over his use, as mayor of New York, of the controversial “stop-and-frisk” policing strategy, and for past comments he’s made about women and the LGBTQ community.

A senior Bloomberg campaign official told NBC News they assume that “everyone attacks us” on Wednesday night.

“He’s going to punch back,” the official said. “He’s not gonna be shy about defending himself certainly, at all.”

But other tensions are certain to emerge as well.

Klobuchar and Buttigieg, two mild-mannered Midwesterners who have both geared their campaigns to appeal to centrist Democrats and disillusioned Republicans, are competing for the same voters. As a result, they’ve been lashing out at one another with increasingly personal attacks. With Bloomberg now joining the fight over moderate voters, the battle for them is likely to escalate.

And Biden and Warren, who are both coming off poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, are fighting for their political lives.

To that end, the Biden campaign, just hours before the debate, took aim at Bloomberg in a critical digital ad for portraying himself as an Obama stalwart despite his past criticism of the former president. Moments later, the Bloomberg campaign hit back with a digital video of their own, featuring past comments by Biden effusively praising the former New York mayor.

The debate comes amid growing worries that the successful execution of Nevada’s Democratic caucuses on Saturday is threatened by a new early-voting system, high turnout and questions about a never-before-used digital tool being used to process results.

The debate, which is also being hosted by Noticias Telemundo and The Nevada Independent, is being held at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas.

The event has five moderators — “NBC Nightly News” and “Dateline NBC” anchor Lester Holt; NBC News political director Chuck Todd, moderator of “Meet the Press”; NBC News chief White House correspondent Hallie Jackson, host of “MSNBC Live”; Noticias Telemundo senior correspondent Vanessa Hauc; and Jon Ralston, editor of The Nevada Independent.

The debate is airing live on NBC News and MSNBC, and streaming live on NBC News NOW on OTT devices, NBCNews.com, MSNBC.com, the NBC News mobile app, NBC News’ and MSNBC’s Facebook pages and online at The Nevada Independent. It is also airing live in Spanish on Universo, as well as the Noticias Telemundo mobile app and website and Noticias Telemundo’s Facebook page. NBCNews.com is live blogging the debate, including fact checks and analysis.