On Wednesday, the leading Democratic candidates for president will take the debate stage in Las Vegas, three days ahead of the Nevada caucuses. This will be the race’s ninth debate, and many voters may be tempted to skip the show. That would be a mistake.
While many of the candidates and their sales pitches are by now familiar — in some cases painfully so — this will be the debate debut of Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire business mogul and former mayor of New York who has been promoting himself, with the help of his personal fortune, as the one player with “the record & the resources” to topple President Trump.
Despite not competing in the first four voting contests, Mr. Bloomberg has emerged as a top-tier contender, sowing anxiety and uncertainty among his rivals. A national poll released Tuesday showed him at 19 percent among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, second only to Bernie Sanders. Other recent polls show him leading the field in Florida and tied for first in Virginia.
Rarely has a candidate come so far while revealing so little of himself, making Wednesday’s debate — the first time Mr. Bloomberg will face his primary competitors live and in person — far more significant, and interesting, than most.
Mr. Bloomberg sauntered into the race in late November, long after most of the field, and has run an unconventional campaign. He didn’t enter the early primaries and caucuses, and he has focused his energies — and his spending — on the diverse, delegate-rich states scheduled to vote on March 3, a.k.a. Super Tuesday.
It is a strategy made possible by the $61.8 billion fortune with which he is self-funding his run. That kind of money can buy an essentially unlimited number of campaign ads — including a $11 million Super Bowl spot — along with a boatload of strategists, staffers and support from local politicians and other influencers. It can also help build vital infrastructure, from local campaign offices to national databases. In less than three months, Mr. Bloomberg has dropped over $400 million.
Even as he has overwhelmed the field with his spending, Mr. Bloomberg has avoided many of the traditional hoops presidential hopefuls are expected to jump through. He skipped the endless retail politicking — the diner stops, county fairs and pancake breakfasts — that comes with wooing voters in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
He is not much for media sitdowns. (He declined an invitation by The Times’s editorial board to participate in our endorsement process.) He has not been involved in the televised town halls at which candidates have been detailing their policy positions. And, of course, he missed the first eight debates, letting him avoid much of the early bloodletting.
More specifically, Mr. Bloomberg was not eligible for the earlier debates, which required candidates to show a certain level of fund-raising support. The Democratic National Committee jettisoned that rule last month, enabling him to participate if he met the threshold of scoring 10 percent in four qualifying polls, which he did.
Already, there is much buzz about which of Mr. Bloomberg’s anxious competitors will hit him the hardest, and how he will respond. If this week’s skirmish with the Sanders campaign is any indication, the evening could get bumpy. Mr. Bloomberg has a reputation for not taking criticism or unwelcome queries particularly well, once calling a reporter whose question he disliked “a disgrace.” During his mayoral runs, he participated in at least eight debates. He tended to come prepared, data at hand, although he could be prickly and awkward at times. His last turn on a debate stage was in 2009.
Beyond the candidate clashes, this will be debate moderators’ first opportunity to kick the tires on Mr. Bloomberg’s candidacy. They owe it to the public to do a thorough and vigorous job.
Presumably, he will come ready to answer the most overarching criticism: that he is trying to buy the presidency. And he can expect a grilling over his controversial use of stop-and-frisk policing — largely with young black and Hispanic men — while mayor. His apologizing for the practice as he began his campaign struck many as a tad cynical. At the very least, he’ll most likely face some follow-up queries, such as: What took you so long?
There is so much more to explore, both promising — like his new plan to address the cost and quality of college — and troubling — for instance, the widespread surveillance of Muslims by local law enforcement during his time as mayor.
In case the moderators are stuck for material, here are a few lines of inquiry to consider:
Mr. Bloomberg used to be a Republican and, over the years, supported numerous Republican candidates at the state and federal levels. Why should Democrats trust him to champion their values as president?
He once linked the financial collapse to measures taken to deal with the damages of redlining, the practice of banks denying home loans in minority neighborhoods. Does he still believe that?
He has been a longtime champion of gun control. How would he pursue reform if Republicans retain control of the Senate?
Once upon a time he opposed increasing the minimum wage, a move he now supports. What changed his mind?
Homelessness in New York surged on his watch. What lessons did he learn from this, and what would his housing policy be as president?
Considering all that we don’t know about Mr. Bloomberg, his grilling could run for the entire debate. And maybe it should. He is, after all, looking to disrupt not only this Democratic field but the entire nominating process. This debate and the one in South Carolina next Tuesday may be the only two opportunities for the broader public to get a real sense of him before Super Tuesday.
Compelling arguments can be, and have been, marshaled for and against Mr. Bloomberg. Is he a narcissistic ex-Republican with Big Brotherish tendencies and a sketchy record on race who is trying to buy the presidency? Is he the battle-tested, successful leader of the nation’s largest city whose business savvy and personal fortune make him especially well suited to dismantle Mr. Trump? Perhaps he is a bit of both.
No one really knows yet. But if he is to move even a step closer to the White House, voters deserve a clearer picture of his candidacy. That process begins Wednesday night.