The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Through a year of campaigning, the Democratic presidential candidates played nice, talking up party unity, disagreeing mostly politely on policy.
Wednesday's debate signaled a sharp turn in the Democratic contest, with civility giving way to a combustible conflict that laid bare both the ideological divisions roiling the party and the personal animosities that have simmered for months.
Elizabeth Warren criticized Bernie Sanders for leading a movement that has provided a haven for online harassment. Amy Klobuchar accused Pete Buttigieg of calling her dumb. And all the candidates piled on first-time debate participant Mike Bloomberg, launching aggressive attacks on his record on race, gender and how he is wielding his vast personal wealth in pursuit of the Democratic nomination.
For many of the candidates, it was a strategy shift born of urgency and necessity. Though just two states have voted thus far, time is running out for some contenders, including former Vice President Joe Biden, to prove they still have a viable path to the nomination as the contest hurtles toward larger, more diverse states.
But the bare-knuckle politicking also carries risks for a party that is desperate to rally around a standard-bearer to take on President Donald Trump in November. Democratic voters have warned for months against intraparty conflict, fearful of damaging their eventual nominee in the general election.
And Republicans indeed appeared to relish Wednesday's infighting.
After the debate, Trump's campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany declared: "The Democrat Party is in the midst of a full-scale meltdown."
Despite Democrats' attempts to maintain civility for much of the campaign, Wednesday's scorching showdown was likely inevitable given how crowded the field remains and how fast the primary calendar is moving. Nevada holds its caucus on Saturday, followed by South Carolina on Feb. 29, and more than a dozen states in the March 3 Super Tuesday contests.
Sanders' strong showings in the opening contests have left some rivals fearful he could begin to amass an insurmountable lead in March, when delegate-rich states like California and Texas vote. And more moderate candidates who view the Vermont senator — a self-described democratic socialist — as unelectable in November fear Bloomberg's late entry in the race could further divide up the anti-Sanders vote.
Bloomberg hasn't appeared on a ballot yet and won't for two more weeks. Yet he's quickly stood up a monstrous national campaign, and recent polls suggest he is getting a boost from the $400 million in advertising he is plunging into states that vote on Super Tuesday and beyond.
Wednesday's debate marked the first opportunity for his rivals to begin puncturing the narrative he is carefully crafting on the airwaves. And they wasted little time in doing so.
Warren, who is urgently trying to salvage her once promising candidacy, was particularly blistering, comparing Bloomberg to another wealthy New Yorker: Trump.
"Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another," Warren said. She also repeatedly put Bloomberg on the defensive over nondisclosure agreements with some female employees at his eponymous media company.
For Warren, the fierce attacks marked a particularly sharp shift in strategy. She's repeatedly refused to allow herself to get drawn into direct combat with her rivals, but has appeared to get drowned out as a result. She finished a disappointing fourth in the New Hampshire primary, and unless she can rack up wins in the next two weeks, her candidacy is all but certain to end.
Bloomberg stepped on stage prepared for the attacks, which his rivals had been foreshadowing for days. Yet the former mayor and business mogul still appeared caught off guard by the ferocity of the pile-on, and he faltered at times in his defense, including when pressed on his past comments about women. He suggested female employees simply "didn't like a joke I told."
Bloomberg's campaign offered a tacit acknowledgement of his stumbles.
"It took him just 45 minutes in his first debate in 10 years to get his legs on the stage," said Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg's campaign manager. "He was just warming up tonight."
Bloomberg was at his best when tangling with Sanders, a candidate he views as outside the mainstream and unelectable.
"I don't think there's any chance of the senator beating President Trump," Bloomberg said. "And if he goes and is the candidate, we will have Donald Trump for another four years. And we can't stand that."
Other candidates also piled on Sanders, accusing him of being too polarizing and too vague about the cost of the sweeping government-run health care policy at the center of his campaign. He beat back the criticisms as he has for months, predicting he could bring new voters into the electorate and use that enthusiasm to bend Washington to his will.
What was unclear at the end of the two-hour contest was how much clarity it provided for Democratic voters still searching for the candidate they believe has the best chance to defeat Trump. And the candidates themselves appeared prepared to fight on for months.
In the debate's final moments, all but Sanders found one thing to agree on: They are open to bringing the race for the nomination to the Democratic convention in July if no candidate emerges from the voting contests with a majority of the delegates in hand.
Takeaways from the Democratic debate
THE $60 BILLION PUNCHING BAG
Bloomberg was the object of scorn, ridicule and contempt. And that was just in the first five minutes of the debate.
With all candidates flashing heat, a measure of the urgency they feel to survive in what is becoming an increasingly bitter nomination fight, the attacks focused on Bloomberg were a clear measure of his perceived strength. He has spent more than $400 million so far on advertising that in turn has given him strong standing in state and national polls.
Sen. Bernie Sanders recalled Bloomberg's support of stop-and-frisk policing targeting minorities. Sen. Elizabeth Warren recalled how Bloomberg had mocked women for being "horse-faced" and "fat" and compared him to Trump. Sen. Amy Klobuchar quipped that "I don't think you look at Donald Trump and say I think we need someone richer in the White House." Former Vice President Joe Biden said Bloomberg condoned racist police practices, and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said Bloomberg was trying to "buy out" the Democratic Party.
But his biggest struggle came when Warren hammered him over allegations of sexism and mistreatment of women in his company.
Bloomberg attempted to defend his record and deflect the attacks on him by turning them into attacks on President Donald Trump. And he effectively raised questions about whether Americans would embrace a socialist like Sanders.
But the glare was harsh, and the attacks landed with force.
Even if you are worth $60 billion it is hard to win a 5-on-1 fight.
NOT THE ERA OF GOOD FEELING
For eight debates, the Democrats largely tiptoed around disagreements except for desultory disputes about health care policies. But on Wednesday night, everyone came with sharp elbows.
It was almost impossible to keep track of the fights. Buttigieg and Klobuchar tussled over experience and the Minnesota senator forgetting the name of Mexico's president. Buttigieg and Sanders argued about the Vermont senator's big-ticket plans and refusal to release his full medical records. Warren clashed with Buttigieg and Klobuchar over their health care plans. And everyone piled onto Bloomberg.
The former New York mayor was the only candidate who didn't really go on the attack, other than the occasional swipe at the self-declared socialist Sanders.
In the end, that dynamic may again benefit Sanders, who leads in the polls and is watching his rivals spend most of their energy tearing each other down rather than targeting him.
RETURN OF WARREN THE FIGHTER
Warren rose to prominence in the Democratic field with a fighting spirit that defined the early months of her campaign. But her disappointing showings in Iowa and New Hampshire left her campaign struggling.
On Wednesday, she decided to get back into the fight.
She slammed Bloomberg -- that was no surprise as she's been an antagonist of billionaires playing in politics for years. But Warren also attacked Klobuchar, saying her health care plan was just a "Post-it note." She accused Buttigieg of being in debt to his rich campaign supporters and having a health care plan that was just a "PowerPoint" designed by his consultants. She slammed fellow liberal Sanders, accusing him of letting his supporters trash anyone with a plan.
But it was her prosecutorial approach to Bloomberg over his company's treatment of women that stood out.
Whatever happens on Saturday, and beyond, Warren regained her fighting voice.
THE GENERATIONAL DIVIDE
Buttigieg, who finished in the top two in Iowa and New Hampshire with Sanders, reserved some of his harshest criticism for Sanders, a man 40 years his elder.
He warned that Democrats could wake up after more than a dozen states vote on Super Tuesday on March 3 and have only Bloomberg and Sanders left on the ballot. He then quipped that the party may want to nominate "someone who is actually a Democrat."
The crowd inside the Las Vegas casino hadn't yet finished chuckling and hooting when he continued by saying Sanders "wants to burn this party down" and Bloomberg "wants to buy this party out."
Sanders, a senator from Vermont and avowed democratic socialist, responded by saying that Buttigieg's campaign has been too reliant on "billionaire" big donors, touching off another intense exchange.
Their back and forth continued through criticism of Sanders supporters who have frequently been accused of bullying behavior online. Sanders said he personally had denounced such behavior. This prompted Buttigieg to say he believed the senator but, "What it is it about your campaign in particular that seems to be motivating this type of behavior?"
On this night, Buttigieg had the most at stake, with Sanders standing in Nevada polls well ahead of the man who has run even with him in the first two contests.
But Sanders did nothing likely to undermine his standing as the leading candidate so far.
DOES KLOBENTUM CONTINUE?
The last debate was rocket fuel for Klobuchar. Her strong performance vaulted her to a third-place finish in New Hampshire and onto Nevada. But it may be hard for lightning to strike twice.
The Minnesota senator often got drowned out in the high-octane bickering Wednesday, or pulled down into the mud. At one point she pulled from her supply of ready quips, saying of Sanders and Bloomberg as they argued over capitalism that there is "a boxing rematch in Vegas on Saturday and these guys should go down there."
The most damaging exchange was between Klobuchar and Buttigieg, who have tangled before. Asked about her embarrassing gaffe in forgetting the name of Mexico's president, she had to fend off Buttigieg, who claimed it disproved her argument that Washington has prepared her to be president. She also alternately scrapped with and aligned with Warren.
"Are you calling me dumb?" Klobuchar asked Buttigieg incredulously. Later, she added, "I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete."
A little over a week ago in New Hampshire, Klobuchar clearly stood out. This time was much harder as everyone battled for survival.
DID BIDEN REVIVE HIS CAMPAIGN?
Another candidate in need of a big night to reverse perceptions that his campaign was struggling was Biden.
For a good portion of the debate, he receded. He joined in the attacks on Bloomberg, but largely avoided some of the more testy exchanges.
When Warren said that Biden was "in the pocket" of Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, Biden fought back. He also tried to return to his "Middle Class Joe" biography about his family's financial struggles.
He did not offer voters any new rationale for voting for him.