Politics

The Nevada debate was a good night for Elizabeth Warren. But what happens next?

Even the Massachusetts senator's rivals acknowledged it was a "good performance."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren during an interview following the Democratic presidential debate Wednesday night in Las Vegas. Erin Schaff / The New York Times

LAS VEGAS — Sen. Elizabeth Warren was raring to go.

The first question of the Democratic debate had gone to Sen. Bernie Sanders, and it was about Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor who is upending the race. As Sanders wrapped up his minutelong answer, Warren strained to weigh in.

“So I’d like —,” Warren tried.

The moderators went elsewhere. But moments later they came to her. She was ready.

“So I’d like to talk about who we’re running against,” she began. “A billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”

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And with that, the former high school championship debater — her skills are still memorialized in a glass trophy cabinet at her Oklahoma City high school — kicked off her most forceful debate performance of the 2020 race and a possible lifeline for her stagnant campaign, with the Nevada caucuses just a few days away. She spent the next two hours lacing into Bloomberg, chiefly, but also her other rivals, with a newfound purpose and urgency — recalling the version of Warren that some allies have wanted to see for months.

While Warren’s opening lines had been carefully rehearsed, the most searing exchange of the night was improvised, according to her aides. Warren pressed Bloomberg about the nondisclosure agreements that former female employees at his companies had signed, so voters could know “what’s lurking out there,” flustering the former mayor into perhaps his worst moments onstage.

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By the night’s end, the gamble had seemingly paid off. She had raised $2.8 million, not just breaking but shattering her top fundraising day in all of 2019. Even advisers to Warren’s rivals had to acknowledge her success. “Good performance,” said Jeff Weaver, a top adviser to Sanders. “Good for her.”

The question was whether it was too late, both for Warren’s campaign in Nevada, where early voting had wrapped up a day earlier with 75,000 votes already cast, and for Warren in general. Her candidacy has been stalled, with disappointing third- and fourth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively.

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Some allies boasted Wednesday after the debate, saying Warren recaptured the magic that helped her rise last year from a middling candidate to the top tier of the primary.

However, Sanders’ campaign also announced big fundraising totals after the debate, a sign that Warren still has to contend with progressive and moderate rivals who have squeezed her base of supporters.

Warren’s struggles in the early-voting states have also made her path to the nomination less clear. Sanders leads most polling in Nevada; Biden leads in South Carolina, the next early voting state; and Warren’s extensive surrogate network of black and Latino activists has yet to translate into significant community support.

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Charles Chamberlain, chair for progressive group Democracy for America, said the collective victory for progressives against Bloomberg in the debate was larger than any individual candidate.

“Tonight, Elizabeth Warren ripped Mike Bloomberg’s face off on national television, exposing his ugly record on women and racial justice,” Chamberlain said in a statement. “Together, these progressives came in tonight to fight against the billionaires and the candidates billionaires are backing — and won.”

Warren went after Bloomberg from the start, trying to dismantle the aura of electability that Bloomberg and his unprecedented ad campaign have wrapped around him. “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,” she said in her opening statement.

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Warren also hit opponents, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sanders, her fellow liberal, whom she has strained herself to avoid targeting in previous debates.

Democrats “are worried about gambling on a revolution that won’t bring along a majority of this country,” Warren said.

Warren had all but telegraphed her strategy of using Bloomberg as a stand-in for Trump. In a tweet Tuesday, she previewed how “primary voters curious about how each candidate will take on Donald Trump can get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire.”

Bloomberg was unprepared anyway.

When Warren pushed Bloomberg about the nondisclosure agreements, Bloomberg boasted that 40% of his City Hall commissioners were women. Warren’s retort was lacerating: “I hope you heard what his defense was: ‘I’ve been nice to some women.’ ”

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As she pushed for the total number of NDAs — “How many is that?” she asked twice — Bloomberg diminished the sealed accusations, saying, “Maybe they didn’t like a joke I told.” Later, he said the women entered the agreements “consensually”; Warren said they had been “muzzled.”

In the hours and days before the debate, Warren’s team was worried about whether she would be heard at all, let alone turn in such a striking performance.

The candidate had come down with a cold and was barely audible at times, descending to a functional whisper even as she refused her team’s advice to strip some events from her schedule to recover. She would not skip debate prep sessions, either, some of which were held at the Bellagio Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip just across from the debate site.

Her team went out in search of solutions: “elm bark” lozenges, teas and, eventually, a throat spray from a supporter who was an opera singer that Warren used to make it through the night.

By the time Warren rejoined her team, her voice was almost gone entirely, aides said.

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