ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A 78-year-old will be the newbie on the Democratic debate stage in Las Vegas tonight. We're talking about former New York mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg. He qualified for a debate for the first time, and his rivals for the nomination include another 78-year-old, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has taken a double-digit lead in recent national polls. We are joined now from Las Vegas by two much younger journalists, NPR's Asma Khalid and Don Gonyea.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: (Laughter).
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Do we feel younger? (Laughter).
KHALID: Thank you for that flattery.
SHAPIRO: Don, why don't you start by setting the stage for us? There are going to be six candidates appearing tonight.
GONYEA: That's right, Sanders and Bloomberg and then Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. It's debate No. 9, and it's the first since the New Hampshire primary, where Sanders won narrowly over Buttigieg. And it's before Saturday's Nevada caucuses, the third presidential nominating contest for Democrats. We've talked about how white and how lacking in diversity the first two states were - Iowa and New Hampshire. That changes now that we're in Nevada and then South Carolina coming after that.
SHAPIRO: Asma, why don't you lay out the main points of conflict you expect to see tonight? Just yesterday, you were here at our studio in D.C., talking about Democrats already preparing their attacks against Bloomberg. What else?
KHALID: Yeah, certainly. You know, we expect to see Bloomberg targeted tonight. Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have made billionaires and income inequality a key part of their campaign message. And, you know, the other interesting thing is that Bloomberg has ads out recently that link himself to former President Barack Obama. And senior Biden officials seemed particularly irked by that messaging because Joe Biden, of course, was Obama's vice president for eight years. So Biden and Bloomberg have begun trading barbs about this messaging on social media today. We saw Biden say, quote, "welcome to the debates, Mike. We have a lot to catch up on about Barack Obama's record." And Bloomberg's team responded with a playful video of Biden back in 2013 praising Bloomberg.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOE BIDEN: Mike has what every public official should have - passion matched with principle. Your legacy extends well beyond the five boroughs to a nation and a world that continues to benefit from the leadership that you have shown and I am absolutely confident is going to exist in the years to come.
KHALID: So we can expect some of that past record to spill over onto the debate stage tonight. The other key candidate to watch is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. He's taken a lead in a number of recent polls.
SHAPIRO: And, Don, one of the candidates likely to attack Sanders is Pete Buttigieg, who was right with Sanders nearly tying in Iowa and New Hampshire. He's actually the delegate leader right now by one. You've been following him. What do you expect to see from him at the debate?
GONYEA: Well, he's got a lot at stake in Bloomberg's arrival on stage and in Bloomberg's rise in the polls. Buttigieg, of course, has a very future-looking message that it's time for new leadership, but he knows he needs to expand his support. He has done well with moderates and whites with college degrees, but he's had very little support with minorities. We'll be watching to see how he changes his message or refocuses it, recasts it to start trying to accomplish something there tonight.
SHAPIRO: Asma, tell us about what Elizabeth Warren has to do tonight because she has been perceived as falling short in New Hampshire, next to her home state of Massachusetts. You've been reporting on how progressives seemed to be drawn to her but, ultimately, went with Sanders. Is that what's going on here?
KHALID: I mean, it's part of what's been going on is that a number of progressive groups did come out to ultimately back Sanders, but we've also seen some of her supporters opt for Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar. You know, she's tried to find the middle ground as a unity candidate between Sanders and some of the more moderate candidates as someone who would essentially work within the system but also, you know, excite progressives to get out and boost that turnout. That's a really tough place to be. And I would say tonight, you might see some more of that fighter persona that she always likes to talk about on stage.
SHAPIRO: And finally, Don, Amy Klobuchar was riding high after her surprisingly strong third-place finish in New Hampshire. She raised more than $10 million after that and went up with ads in Nevada. But she has arrived in that state later than others. What's she hoping for tonight?
GONYEA: Yeah, you know, she just needs to do all of that again, only more so, right?
GONYEA: Like Buttigieg, she needs to expand her support. She did well in New Hampshire - well enough to get buzz, well enough to raise more money. But here comes Bloomberg, going after many of the same voters that she's going for. So she is a strong debater, so I think we can expect her to be very visible, very present this evening.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Don Gonyea and Asma Khalid in Las Vegas, where Democrats will debate one another later this evening.
KHALID: Always a pleasure.
GONYEA: Thank you.
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