Michael Bloomberg believes he is the one Democrats have been waiting for.
He’s been watching his new party’s presidential primary contest from afar, enjoying the messy spectacle of it all. He is taking delight at being the center of attention – and the object of President Donald Trump’s contemptuous affection.
“If he doesn’t mention you, you’ve got a big problem,” Bloomberg said Thursday with a smile, responding to a burst of insults the President hurled his way on Twitter. “He sees our poll numbers and I think it’s fair to say he is scared because he knows I have the record and the resources to beat him.”
But Bloomberg’s record and resources are quickly coming into sharper focus as the Democratic primary fight – that he has intentionally kept at arm’s length – descends upon him.
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Through an unprecedented investment of more than $381 million in advertising, the former New York City mayor has shaped his own narrative – until now.
He’s suddenly on the defensive over the controversial stop-and-frisk policing policy in New York after an audio clip of a 2015 speech came to light earlier this week in which Bloomberg argued one way to reduce violence was to throw minority kids “up against the walls and frisk them.”
In three stops across North Carolina on Thursday, where he highlighted the opening day of early voting in the state, Bloomberg did not address his incendiary rhetoric about the discriminatory police tactic later deemed unconstitutional and ineffective. He also did not address another controversy that had arisen over newly reported comments from a 2008 speech in which he said the end of “redlining,” a discriminatory housing practice, helped contribute to the economic collapse and recession in 2008.
He took no questions from voters or reporters as he traveled from Winston-Salem to Greensboro to Raleigh, despite several people in the crowds telling CNN they wished he would have addressed the stop-and-frisk matter.
Sylvia Swayze, a business owner in Greensboro and an admirer of Bloomberg, said she had not heard a sufficient apology. She said she believed people would move beyond it – and not hold it against him – if he offered an explanation and expressed his regret.
“If he does a better job of that, he’s going to get a lot more voters – especially people of color,” Swayze said. “It’s really an issue. If he resolves it, then he can move on and get my vote.”
Ted Rueter, a political scientist who also likes Bloomberg and believes the former mayor is the party’s best chance to defeat Trump, also said he wished Bloomberg had acknowledged the stop-and-frisk remarks Thursday.
“I’d like to hear him more clearly apologize or clearly explain his thinking,” said Rueter, who came out to see Bloomberg at a morning stop. “You can’t simply say, this is five years ago, this is seven years ago. That’s not that long ago.”
Bloomberg addressed the controversy late Thursday night in Houston at the launch of a group his campaign calls “Mike for Black America.”
“I defended it looking back for too long because I didn’t understand then the unintended pain it was causing to young black and brown families and their kids,” Bloomberg said, offering a full-throated apology for the policy. “I should have acted sooner and faster to stop it. I didn’t end for that I apologize.”
The comments signal Bloomberg’s desire to move beyond the controversy. He’s received a series of high-profile endorsements from African American members of Congress and big-city mayors, including Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina, a national co-chair of Bloomberg’s campaign.
“Stop and frisk was a mistake,” Benjamin said. “It didn’t start under Mike. It ended by 95% under Mike’s leadership.”
Others to endorse Bloomberg this week include Reps. Lucy McBath of Georgia, Gregory Meeks of New York and Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands, all members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
As Bloomberg sought to keep his focus on Thursday trained on Trump, several of his Democratic rivals indicated they had no intention of giving him a pass.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, during an appearance on ABC’s “The View,” raised questions about whether Bloomberg had not been properly vetted and said the former mayor must answer questions about stop-and-frisk and redlining.
“It’s amazing how every single thing I’ve said for the last 40 years has come up and I’ve answered them all,” Biden said. “We’re just now getting into the place we’re looking at other people’s records.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, too, knocked Bloomberg, tweeting a video about “redlining” and noting, “Here’s a history lesson on the racist legacy of redlining, if any presidential candidate needs a refresher.”
The Democratic candidates meet next week in Las Vegas for another debate, the first one for which Bloomberg could meet the qualifications. His advisers are preparing for him to be on the debate stage if he gets one more qualifying poll this week.
But the first true test of Bloomberg’s candidacy will come March 3, also known as Super Tuesday, when voters in 14 states coast-to-coast weigh in on the biggest day of the primary calendar. He has spent nearly $130 million on Super Tuesday ads and $381 million overall, trying to make the point he’s the strongest candidate to challenge Trump.
Less than three months after declaring his candidacy, Bloomberg has built a massive campaign battleship, with 2,400 employees and growing. It’s a general-election-sized operation bigger than Barack Obama’s at the end of his 2008 campaign.
The strength of the effort was on full display Thursday as voters were greeted by an army of paid campaign staffers, with clipboards in hand, collecting information that will be used to remind them to cast early ballots in North Carolina.
Hundreds of people turned out to see Bloomberg at each stop, where free breakfast or lunch was served. Bloomberg T-shirts were passed out to whoever wanted one – or several. He spoke for no longer than 15 minutes at each stop, shook hands for a few minutes and was on his way.
It’s all part of the Bloomberg plan to overwhelm his Democratic rivals in hopes of showing signs of strength against the man he’s ultimately aching to run against: the President.
“I come from New York just like him and I’m not afraid of Donald Trump and he knows it and that’s why he keeps tweeting about me,” Bloomberg said. “Thank you Donald, keep sending it in, I love it.”
Far less was said about the race that comes first: the Democratic primary.
CNN’s Caroline Kenny contributed to this report.