New York, Feb 18 (IANS) Controversial mega-billionaire Michael Bloomberg has surged ahead in opinion polls to become one of the top challengers for the Democrats’ nomination for the presidential elections, upsetting the electoral calculus and has qualified for the party’s debate on Wednesday.
A new poll showed him with 19 per cent support, surpassing former Vice President Joe Biden, who received 15 per cent and tailing only Senator Bernie Sanders with 31 per cent, enabling Bloomberg to take part in the debate.
Three other polls had shown Bloomberg over the 10 per cent mark required to qualify for the debate.
This will be the first time he will have to publicly lay out his platform and answer to criticisms after a $300 million ad campaign that vaulted him in the polls.
The Democratic Party race for nomination has now sharpening to a confrontation between the left wing represented by Sanders and the centre-right by Bloomberg, who is pushing aside Biden.
The real strength of the candidates will be measured on March 3 when 14 states, including California, will be holding their party elections known as primaries with secret ballots, and in which Bloomberg will be a candidate, after skipping the first four state races.
The party’s establishment may find Bloomberg’s rise comforting as it has been uneasy with Sanders, fearing that his leftist stance could drive away moderate voters.
Despite Bloomberg’s racist and sexist comments and his position as an elitist billionaire, many Democrats have signalled support for him as they say he is the strongest candidate to defeat Trump – which is the only thing that matters to most in the party.
With his deep pockets self-funding his campaign and a feisty, abrasive demeanour, he could match Trump’s insults and bombast.
Both the Democrat front-runners do not have entrenched organic party connections: Bloomberg is a former Republican and Sanders, a self-described socialist, is officially an Independent in the Senate.
If Bloomberg, 78, wins the party nomination, the November election will be a contest between a uber billionaire with assets estimated at about $61 billion, and a mere billionaire, President Donald Trump, 73, with assets estimated between $1.5 billion and $3.5 billion.
Bloomberg is the owner of the news and financial information company that bears his name and a former Mayor of New York.
Presaging the attacks he will face from the other five candidates Wednesday night in Las Vegas, Sanders said: “The American people are sick and tired of billionaires buying elections.”
Bloomberg has been spending his own money for his campaign, unlike the other candidates – and Trump – who have been raising funds from supporters.
To participate in the eight party debates held so far, candidates had to show that they received contributions from a minimum number of supporters – 225,000 for the eighth debate on February 7 – which Bloomberg could not meet, but that requirement has been done away with for Wednesday’s poll.
Now the qualification is based on poll performances only and Bloomberg has met the threshold with over 10 per cent in four polls.
Trump stoked the rivalries in the Democratic Party with a tweet that its leadership was rigging the race against Sanders.
He had earlier said that he would rather face Sanders than Bloomberg.
While Sanders can turn off moderates, Bloomberg can appeal to wide range of voters from moderates to right-of-centre, and even to the extreme right because of controversial past due to his policies towards minorities as Mayor and racist and sexist statements he has made.
He has been criticised for these by his rivals and some other party leaders.
“Sixty billion dollars can buy you a lot of advertising, but it cannot erase your record,” Biden said.
But he seems to have buried his past partially at least, so far with his ad blitz that featured clips of former President Barack Obama, an African American, praising him – and overshadowing the fact that Biden was his Vice President.
As Mayor, Blomberg introduced a “stop and frisk” programme under which police randomly stopped and searched non-white youth; courts declared it unconstitutional because of the racial bias.
After ending his third term as Mayor, he defended his policy of “throw them against the wall and frisk them” claiming that “95 per cent of your murders and murderers” were “male minorities 15 to 25” and “you can just take the description and Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops.”
He also defended the illegal policy of financial institutions denying loans to minorities asserting that ending it caused the 2008 financial crisis.
He and his company have faced several law suits alleging discrimination against women and denigrating them.
In one of them he is alleged to have asked a woman employee who was pregnant to “kill it,” a charge he has denied.
Some of these views could appeal to the extreme right in Trump’s base of supporters because Trump, who is accused of being a racist by Democrats, has not made such directly racist statements, at least in recent years.
Bloomberg has apologised for his comments and his policy as Mayor.
Bloomberg, who entered the race late, has followed a strategy that focuses on the states that have a more substantial number of delegates at the party’s national convention which will anoint the Democrat presidential candidate.
Along with his ad campaign, he has built a campaign network that pays staff top salaries.
Meanwhile, the other candidates – who numbered about 20 at the start of the campaign last year and have been whittled down to five now – spent millions of dollars fighting each other in the four early party elections and tearing each other’s images apart.
(Arul Louis can be contacted at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @arulouis)