By Simon Lewis and Tim Reid
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Michael Bloomberg faced a barrage of attacks at his first Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday, as his rivals rushed to criticize the billionaire businessman for his wealth, record on race and history of sexist comments.
Bloomberg seemed nervous and hesitant in a rough debut before a national audience in a debate that gave voters their first unscripted look at the media mogul and self-funding former New York mayor who has surged in polls while spending hundreds of millions of his own dollars on television ads.
Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg lined up to go after Bloomberg, frequently shouting over one another as they vied for attention in the most contentious of the nine Democratic White House debates.
All the contenders accused Bloomberg of trying to buy his way into the White House and said his record as mayor and a businessman would lead the party to defeat in November.
"We're running against a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-face lesbians," said Warren, a senator from Massachusetts. "And, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg."
"Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another," she added.
Bloomberg has been accused over the years of many sexist and misogynist comments, and several lawsuits have been filed alleging that women were discriminated against at his media company.
He did not respond to Warren's comments about his past remarks about women, which were taken from a booklet given to him in 1990 that was said to be a compilation of his sayings over the years. A campaign spokesman has said that Bloomberg "simply did not say the things somebody wrote in this gag gift."
Bloomberg, who entered the race in November and is skipping the first four early voting states in February to focus on later nominating contests in March, has risen to No. 2 among Democrats behind Sanders, according to a Reuters/Ipsos national poll released on Tuesday.
Bloomberg said at the debate that he was using his money for an important cause.
"I’m spending that money to get rid of Donald Trump – the worst president we’ve ever had. And if I can get that done, it will be a great contribution to America and to my kids," he said.
The debate came at a pivotal time, three days before Nevada's presidential caucuses, the third contest in the state-by-state race to find a challenger to Trump in the Nov. 3 election.
The high stakes were evident in the intensity of the exchanges, with Biden and Warren, in particular, facing the do-or-die task of reigniting their campaigns after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this month.
Both Warren and Biden, the former vice president, criticized Bloomberg for his treatment of women. The two asked him to commit to releasing women who had signed nondisclosure agreements to settle lawsuits. Bloomberg refused, saying they were made "consensually" with the expectation that they would stay private.
"We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many nondisclosure agreements, and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against," said Warren, who had her most aggressive debate.
Bloomberg said there were "very few" nondisclosure agreements. "None of them accuse me of anything," he said. "Maybe they didn't like the jokes I told."
BLOOMBERG 'EMBARRASSED' BY STOP AND FRISK
Sanders, a progressive senator who has surged to the top of polls, criticized Bloomberg's support for "stop-and-frisk" police policies as mayor that "went after African-American and Latino people in an outrageous way. That is not a way you are going to grow voter turnout."
Biden said Bloomberg had not managed New York very well during his three terms as mayor and said stop and frisk had thrown "close to 5 million young black men up against the wall."
Bloomberg has long struggled with the legacy of the "stop-and-frisk" policy, which encouraged police to stop and search pedestrians and ensnared disproportionate numbers of blacks and Latinos.
Bloomberg said he was "worried" and "embarrassed" about his support for stop and frisk and that he had apologized for supporting it.
"If we took off everybody that was wrong off this panel, everybody that was wrong on criminal justice sometime in their careers, there'd be nobody else up here," Bloomberg said.
But his rivals were not willing to let him off the hook.
"It's not whether you apologize or not, it's the policy. The policy was abhorrent. And it was in fact a violation of every right people have," Biden said.
After a discussion about Sanders' democratic socialist economic proposals, Bloomberg said he could not think of an easier way to get Trump re-elected.
"It’s ridiculous. We’re not going throw out capitalism. We tried that, other countries tried - it was called communism and just didn’t work," he said. Sanders called it "a cheap shot."
"The best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses. What did I miss here?" Bloomberg said of Sanders.
"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. And a good chunk of it goes to the Democratic Party as well."
Trump was happy to inject himself into the debate pile-on of Bloomberg, telling supporters at a rally in Phoenix: "I hear he's getting pounded tonight."
The Nevada caucuses are the first in a state with a more diverse population after contests in predominantly white Iowa and New Hampshire. Those first contests produced a split verdict, with Buttigieg, 38, the moderate former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, edging Sanders in Iowa, and Sanders narrowly beating Buttigieg in New Hampshire.
Bloomberg, pressed on when he would release his tax returns, said they were complicated but he was working on it and hoped to do so soon. "Pay them overtime and get it done," Warren said.
"I wish it was that simple," Bloomberg said. "I can't go to Turbo Tax"Original Article ©Copyrights Reuters