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Sanders, Bloomberg Escalate Tensions Ahead of Debate

Mark Niquette

(Bloomberg) -- Rhetoric between Democratic presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg escalated ahead of Tuesday’s debate in South Carolina, with Bloomberg criticizing Sanders’s gun-control record and Sanders suggesting Bloomberg couldn’t win a debate against President Donald Trump.

Bloomberg’s campaign has turned its focus on Sanders, who is fresh off winning the popular vote in Iowa and the contests in New Hampshire and Nevada. He is favored in several Super Tuesday states, where Bloomberg will appear on ballots for the first time.

In addition to attacking Sanders’s gun-control positions, the Bloomberg campaign also suggested, without providing evidence, that Sanders’s supporters were responsible for vandalism at its state offices -- including Chicago, where the office was defaced with the word “oligarch,” the campaign said, calling it an “act of hate.”

“While we do not know who is directly responsible, we do know Senator Bernie Sanders and his campaign have repeatedly invoked this language, and the word “oligarch” specifically, when discussing Mike Bloomberg and his campaign,” campaign manager Kevin Sheekey said in a statement.

The Sanders campaign declined to comment on the vandalism.

(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

On Monday, Sanders took on critics such as Bloomberg who have said he wouldn’t be able to beat Trump in November.

“I know you’re hearing a lot on TV, ‘Bernie can’t win,’” Sanders said at the South Carolina Democratic Party First in the South dinner in Charleston. “Don’t believe everything you hear on TV.”

He went on to list polls that show him defeating the president in head-to-head matchups. “In order to beat Trump, we will need the largest voter turnout in the history of our country, and our campaign and our extraordinary grassroots movement is by far the best situated to do that,” Sanders said.

The Bloomberg campaign said it’s dispatching surrogates to highlight what it called Sanders’s “dangerous record siding with the NRA” against gun-control measures, including voting five times against the Brady Bill to regulate handguns and supporting a NRA-backed law giving gun manufacturers legal immunity.

“With gun violence becoming a regular part of American life Bernie Sanders stood on the sidelines,” Sheekey said in a statement. Dan Kanninen, the campaign’s states director, told reporters on a conference call Monday that Sanders’s record on guns is “disqualifying.”

As Bloomberg has been rising in national polls, Sanders has increased his criticism that the billionaire has ties to Wall Street and is self-funding his campaign. Sanders has also criticized Bloomberg’s past comments about policing, women and minorities.

Bloomberg, a longtime gun-control advocate, tweeted on Monday that that NRA “paved the road to Washington for Bernie Sanders” in his elections and that “we deserve a president who is not beholden to the gun lobby.”

QuickTake: Guns in America

The Sanders campaign defended his record on guns, noting that Sanders has been endorsed by the co-founders of March for Our Lives in response to 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“The NRA never endorsed Bernie Sanders and he has never taken a dime of their money,” Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver said in a statement. “In fact, he lost his 1988 congressional race because he backed an assault weapons ban. But even after that, Sanders maintained his opposition to these weapons of war.”

Sanders said in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” that if Trump were to meet Bloomberg in a general election debate, Trump would “chew him up and spit him out.” The two Democrats will face off again Tuesday at another debate in South Carolina.

“This is the problem of a Bloomberg candidacy,” Sanders said on “60 Minutes.” “It’s not just my supporters, he is not going to be a strong candidate.”

Despite all the attacks and counterattacks, the former New York mayor’s campaign said he would still support Sanders if he is the Democratic nominee.

Bloomberg plans to maintain the organization he has built in key battleground states, keeping offices open and paying staff in an effort to support the nominee, even if it’s Sanders, Kanninen said.

“He thinks Donald Trump is an existential threat, and he’ll support whoever the nominee is, even if that nominee were to be Bernie Sanders,” Kanninen told reporters. “Obviously, we disagree on some policy positions but we also really have deep concerns that not only his positions but the politics that he espouses will make it extraordinarily difficult to win against Trump.”

Sanders also has said he would support Bloomberg if wins the nomination but declined to answer directly when asked recently whether he’d accept support from Bloomberg.

“I don’t think we’re going to need that money because, interestingly enough, I think when you have an agenda as we have that speaks to the needs of working families, you’re going to have millions and millions and millions of people chipping in 10 bucks apiece, 50 bucks apiece, and that’s how you’re going to raise the money you need to defeat Trump,” he said.

(Updates with comment from Sanders in eighth paragraph)

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Niquette in Columbus at mniquette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, John Harney, Max Berley

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