The Massachusetts senator finished off pace in the first two contests of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, raising doubts over her path to the nomination and questions about her staying power. But with her campaign possibly on the line and, many have suggested, on the ropes, Warren turned in a masterclass that translated into a fundraising haul of more than $1 million over less than two hours, according to a tweet from her chief mobilization officer.
That fresh infusion of cash is critical to Warren’s hopes of outrunning her rivals over what her campaign has insisted will be a marathon primary season. She hammered the moderates over their more modest plans, jabbed Sen. Bernie Sanders over his campaign’s tactics and hacked away, throughout the night, at former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Warren has tended to drift in and out of past debates, but the billionaire former mayor’s presence, directly to her right, seemed to invigorate her. She shot out of the gates arguing that Bloomberg’s record made him unelectable and, to Democrats, simply unacceptable.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against, a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump,” Warren said in the opening minutes. “I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
The audience gasped, but Warren was only getting started.
“Democrats are not going to win,” she said, “if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist policies like redlining and ‘stop and frisk.’”
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, waiting on deck, took it from there and, with barely a 15 minutes gone, Bloomberg, making his debate stage debut, had been struck back on his heels.
Later on, when Bloomberg was asked by a moderator about his 2015 comments, in which he talked up “stop and frisk” and said that minority communities were disproportionately targeted because “that’s where all the crime is,” Warren pounced again, this time targeting the rationale behind his disavowal of the practice.
“When the mayor says that he apologized, listen very closely to the apology,” Warren said. “The language he used is about stop and frisk. It’s about how it turned out. No, this isn’t about how it turned out. This is about what it was designed to do to begin with.”
The crowd in Las Vegas cheered as Warren continued, reminding voters that Bloomberg had defended the policy throughout his three terms as mayor, even amid protests and a court ruling it unconstitutional.
“You need a different apology here, Mr. Mayor,” Warren said.
The onslaught continued when Bloomberg, confronted with allegations of misogynistic behavior at his company, sought to pivot away from those damning reports and highlight the number of women he’d promoted both in the private sector and while in public office.
Warren, who has already been critical of Bloomberg on this front, was given the first opportunity to respond.
“I hope you heard what his defense was – ‘I’ve been nice to some women. That just doesn’t cut it,” she said, before putting Bloomberg on the spot over reports that dozens of other women had left his company and signed nondisclosure agreements that, to this day and beyond, prevent them from publicly discussing their experiences.
Bloomberg said the number of NDAs had been overstated, but didn’t provide a precise number. Three times Warren cut in to ask for a specific figure and three times Bloomberg demurred. He also turned down her suggestion that he release the women from those arrangements.
“We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many nondisclosure agreements,” Warren said, “and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against.”
Warren’s showing delighted some of her highest profile supporters. Nelini Stamp, the director of strategy and partnerships at the progressive Working Families Party, hailed the performance of a candidate the organization endorsed months ago.
“Tonight we saw Elizabeth Warren doing what she does best: Standing up for working families against a billionaire who believes elections can be bought, and who thinks his abusive behavior towards people of color, Muslims, and women can be laundered with nine-figure ad blitz,” Stamp said in a statement as aides and allies cheered on Twitter and during cable news appearances after the debate.
Warren also drew an enthusiastic response from the audience when the debate wended its way to the climate crisis.
“I want to make sure that the question of environmental justice gets more than a glancing blow in this debate,” she said, before again being cut off by applause. “Because for generations now in this country, toxic waste dumps, polluting factories have been located in or near communities of color, over and over and over.”
And when health care came up, a topic that has been unkind to Warren in the past, she fired off a tight round of criticism to both her right and left.
Plans from Klobuchar and Buttigieg, Warren said, were thin and, even if they were realized, would fall short of her more ambitious goal of passing “Medicare for All” by the end of her first term in office.
“Mayor Buttigieg really has a slogan that was thought up by his consultants to paper over a thin version of a plan that would leave millions of people unable to afford their health care. It’s not a plan. It’s a PowerPoint,” she said. “And Amy’s plan is even less. It’s like a Post-It note, ‘Insert Plan Here.”
Warren even slipped in a dig at Sanders, if not over his ambitions, then how he and his allies have made the case for them.
“Instead of expanding and bringing in more people to help, instead, his campaign relentlessly attacks everyone who asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make this work,” she said.
Warren summarized her own approach, which she cast as more pragmatic: “If we don’t get it all the first time,” she said, “take the win and come back into the fight to ask for more.”
Her campaign and its supporters will certainly take Wednesday night’s showing as a sign Warren is ready to do just that.