WASHINGTON - Splintered results in early Democratic Party presidential nominating contests are providing an opening for former New York mayor and billionaire Mike Bloomberg's unconventional media-driven campaign strategy.
Matthew Dallek, a professor of politics at George Washington University, said Bloomberg made a "risky bet" that the Democratic field would be "so scrambled" and moderate candidates "sufficiently weak" that he could bypass the early nomination contests and still win.
Bloomberg declared his candidacy for president relatively late in November and missed the filing deadline for state elections this month. But he has been blanketing America's airwaves with slick political advertisements.
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The results from the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire's primary have raised concerns among some Democrats that no one strong enough to defeat President Donald Trump will emerge from the current field of candidates.
"The other ones will go self-defeat themselves. It's awful and Trump just will pick up the pieces if we don't get Mike in there," said Craig Hedley, a Bloomberg supporter in Virginia.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders' victories in two very close elections, winning over former mayor Pete Buttigieg in New Hampshire by one percent and virtually tying Buttigieg for first place in Iowa, have alarmed moderates who view Sanders' agenda to make college education and health care free as polarizing and extreme. Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist.
"I don't think he [Sanders] can build a coalition and I don't think he can beat Trump," said Deborah Hedley, who is also a Bloomberg supporter in Virginia.
The other well-known progressive presidential contender, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, has had weak showings so far, after finishing third place in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire.
Among the moderate contenders, Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Indiana mayor, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar have gained political momentum. But polls show neither has significant backing from minority voters, key Democratic constituencies, creating doubts that either has a viable path to the party's nomination.
Surprising to many is that former Vice President Joe Biden, who was the early national front-runner in the race, stumbled badly in the first two contests.
Despite not being on the ballot in Iowa or New Hampshire, Bloomberg rose to third place in two national polls this week, coming in behind only Sanders and Biden.
A recent convert to the Democratic Party in 2018, Bloomberg first ran for mayor as a Republican, before changing to Independent. He is now billing himself as a unifying force who can appeal to disaffected Republicans and independents in key battleground states that swung to Trump in 2016 and which Democrats hope to recapture in November.
"I'm running to bring our country back together and start putting the United back in the United States of America," Bloomberg said during a recent campaign speech in Michigan.
Bloomberg, who is the 12th richest man in the world, has strong pro-business credentials as head of the multi-billion dollar Bloomberg media company. And he has gained national recognition for his tenure as mayor of New York, the largest city in the country.
Bloomberg has earned "credibility" with party leaders, said Dallek, by using his vast fortune to help Democrats win control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections. He also won recognition as a philanthropist and an issues advocate, funding organizations that fight climate change and gun violence.
Bloomberg's activism has helped earned him endorsements from a cross section of party leaders that include Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser.
"I'm supporting Mike Bloomberg," said Bowser. "He has spent many, many years and many millions of dollars standing up to the NRA (National Rifle Association) to make cities and towns across America safer."
Also endorsing Bloomberg this week was Florida congressman Ted Deutch, who represents the Parkland area where in 2018 a gunman killed 17 people, including many students, with a semi-automatic rifle at a local high school.
Calandrian Simpson Kemp, an African American from Texas, who lost her son to gun violence, made an emotional appeal on Bloomberg's behalf in a television ad that played during the Super Bowl, and she is now traveling with the campaign as a surrogate spokesperson.
"He cares," she told a crowd in Richmond, Virginia. "As a mother I would not throw my all and my everything behind somebody who is just talking."
Bloomberg's first real test will come on Super Tuesday on March 3, when he will be on the ballot in 14 states with large, diverse electorates that include California, Texas and Virginia.
Stop and Frisk
But Bloomberg has been criticized for Stop and Frisk law enforcement policies while mayor that disproportionately targeted African American and Latino men with aggressive search and detainment tactics.
In November of last year, Bloomberg tried to put the matter behind him by apologizing for the police policy.
"I now see that we could and should have acted sooner and acted faster to cut the stops. I wish we had, I'm sorry that we didn't," he said.
However, Bloomberg was forced to address the controversy again this week after a 2015 recording surfaced in which the then-mayor defended the practice of targeting young African American and Latino men, saying they fit the profile for "95% of your murders" in New York.
Bloomberg said in a statement this week that he "inherited the police practice of stop-and-frisk" and that he cut it back by 95% during his time in office. He also reiterated his earlier apology and said, "I have taken responsibility for taking too long to understand the impact it had on black and Latino communities."
Bloomberg is also self-funding his extensive national campaign. He has spent over $200 million of his own money and is reportedly planning to double that amount on television advertising and expanding his national campaign staff in the coming weeks.
His supporters commend Bloomberg for using his wealth to fund his campaign, arguing that the billionaire's resources will be needed to compete against Trump. Republicans have collected over $200 million so far for the president's reelection campaign.
But Sanders, Warren and others have criticized Bloomberg, accusing him of attempting to buy the election.
"How do we feel, about living in a so-called democracy when a billionaire, multi-billionaire, 55 billion, can spend unlimited sums of money?" asked Sanders.