From left, Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor...

From left, Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate on Wednesday in Las Vegas, hosted by NBC News and MSNBC.  Credit: AP/John Locher

As we saw in the Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, a quick consensus formed in media coverage of the debate in Nevada. Elizabeth Warren won, and Michael Bloomberg, making his first debate appearance, lost.

Everyone came ready to attack the former three-term New York City mayor, who has rocketed to second or third place in the national polls while spending unprecedented sums in states where the other candidates either haven’t campaigned at all or have only just begun. His inexperience in debating at this level was obvious. Most of the attacks (on stop-and-frisk policing, on reports that he’s said demeaning things about women, about his previous support for and from Republicans, and more) should have been easy to anticipate. Yet he simply did not deliver strong answers. The good news for him is that he’s not competing in any primaries until March 3, so he has plenty of time to recover if bad press from this event blunts his momentum.

(Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

Warren had failed to make an impression in recent debates, and her third-place finish in Iowa and weak fourth in New Hampshire put her campaign in serious trouble. She was at her best in Las Vegas — despite some voice problems from a recent cold. Besides her attacks on Bloomberg, she also went after Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar effectively.

The others on the stage probably aren’t going to get headlines from this debate, and how they’re judged will likely depend on who is doing the judging. Biden has learned to show energy by shouting all the time (as Bernie Sanders has done for two presidential campaigns now). Those who like the former vice president but who worried that he had lost a step were probably satisfied with his Las Vegas performance.

Buttigieg spent a lot of time attacking Bloomberg, Sanders and Klobuchar, eventually engaging in back-and-forth schoolyard taunts with the Minnesota senator. Again, whether he seems like a fresh alternative or a preprogrammed know-it-all probably depends on impressions formed before the debate. Klobuchar has an arsenal of effective debate maneuvers; this time, with others also bringing plenty of energy, she stood out a lot less than she did in New Hampshire.

As for Sanders? He took some shots, especially from Buttigieg and Bloomberg, who zinged him for being a millionaire with three houses. I’m sure the Vermont senator’s supporters thought he handled it well, but I doubt he made any new fans.

I saw a lot of pundits assuming that all of this worked to Sanders’s advantage: He’s leading in the national and Nevada polls, and as long as he escaped without damage that must be good for him. We won’t know how it plays out until the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, the South Carolina primary on Feb. 28, and in his fundraising over this next stretch. (Warren’s camp was already bragging about her instant cash infusion as the debate was going on.)

One point I think some are overlooking: This was the debate in which the fringe candidates were all excluded from the stage. Just holding their own is bound to help not only Warren, who had been lost in the shuffle recently, but also Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who are still little known to most Democrats nationally.

Remember: A lot of Democrats are still getting their first looks at these candidates. Biden and Sanders were well known going into the campaign; Bloomberg has made himself well known despite his late entry to the race.

We won’t know until Saturday night what effect any of this has on Democrats caucusing in Nevada — many of whom have already voted early. But we’ve seen debates move votes in the short term before, and it could happen again.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months