CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — With the Nevada caucuses less than a week away, Democratic presidential candidates campaigning Sunday were fixated on a rival who wasn't contesting the state.
Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg all targeted billionaire Mike Bloomberg, accusing him of buying his way into the election and making clear they were eager to take him on in a debate.
"He thinks he can buy this election," Sanders said of the former New York mayor at a rally in Carson City, Nevada. "Well, I've got news for Mr. Bloomberg — the American people are sick and tired of billionaires buying elections!"
Their attacks are a sign of how seriously the field is starting to take Bloomberg as he gains traction in the race and is on the cusp of qualifying for Wednesday's Democratic debate in Las Vegas. Bloomberg has bypassed the traditional early voting states including Nevada, focusing instead on the 14 states that vote in the Super Tuesday primary on March 3. He has spent more than $417 million of his own multibillion-dollar fortune on advertising nationwide, an unprecedented sum for any candidate in a primary.
The focus on Bloomberg comes amid anxiety among many establishment-aligned Democrats over the early strength of Sanders, who won last week's New Hampshire primary and essentially tied for first place in Iowa with Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Sanders is hoping to notch a victory in Nevada on Saturday as moderates struggle to unite behind a candidate who could serve as a counter to the Vermont senator, who has long identified as a democratic socialist.
The hundreds of millions of dollars that Bloomberg has pumped into the Super Tuesday states has only heightened the sense of uncertainty surrounding the Democratic race.
At Sanders' rally, the crowded cheered as the Vermont senator joked that Bloomberg is "struggling, he's down to his last $60 billion" and derided him for skipping the early primary states.
It marked an escalation of the salvo Sanders launched Saturday against the former mayor, when he ticked off a litany of conservative positions Bloomberg has taken in the past, including opposing a minimum wage hike and his opposition to a number of Barack Obama's policies while president.
On Saturday, Sanders suggested the former mayor's past conservatism and controversial comments make him a weak candidate against President Donald Trump, charging that Bloomberg, "with all his money, will not create the kind of excitement and energy we need" to beat Trump.
And on Sunday, he was joined by the current mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, who just this week endorsed Sanders. De Blasio introduced Sanders with an attack of his own on his predecessor, telling the crowd, "I'm sorry to report to you the chief proponent of stop and frisk is now running for president."
Klobuchar, speaking on CBS' "Face the Nation," accused Bloomberg of avoiding scrutiny by blanketing the airwaves and sidestepping debates or tough televised interviews.
"I think he cannot hide behind the airwaves and the money," she said. "I think he has to come on the shows. And I personally think he should be on the debate stage."
Klobuchar said she's raised $12 million since her better-than-expected finish in third place in New Hampshire. She's maintained her campaign through a series of strong debate performances and argued that Bloomberg being on stage with his rivals would level the playing field.