WASHINGTON -- It was the debate many Democrats had been waiting for.

The six candidates in Las Vegas on Wednesday wrestled over health care, taxes and climate change. But the central issue in the ferocious debate – the first to feature former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – was less about policy and more about the direction of the Democratic Party and who can defeat President Donald Trump in November.

That argument began in the first few seconds, and never let up.

Bloomberg was on defense throughout the evening – the target for virtually every other candidate on stage – and had to answer for his previous positions on health care, policing policies that disproportionately affected black New Yorkers and his company’s treatment of its female employees.

Several other candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts fought aggressively for time and the oxygen they need to give their campaign a boost and the sense that they still have a realistic chance of winning the nomination.

“I can’t think of a way to make it easier for Donald Trump to get reelected than listening to this conversation,” Bloomberg said during a fight over imposing higher taxes on the wealthy, which he said he opposes.

Bloomberg dismissed the liberals on stage in Trumpian terms: The country, he said, had tried “communism” and that it “just didn’t work.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders fired back by arguing that beating Trump would require the largest voter turnout in history and Bloomberg can’t do that because of his past support for the controversial “stop-and-frisk” police strategy that had a disproportionate impact on black communities in New York.

Sanders said the policy, which Bloomberg apologized for again on Wednesday, “went after the African American and Latino people in an outrageous way.”

Sanders also relentlessly attacked Bloomberg’s wealth, describing it as part of an income inequality in the country that is “immoral.”

The debate came at an inflection point in the race for the Democratic nomination, as Bloomberg has seen his support rise as he has blanketed television airwaves with ads. Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg both came out of Iowa and New Hampshire with strong finishes, and that put targets on their backs as well on Wednesday.

“This has been quite a debate,” Klobuchar summed up in her closing statement.

From the first moments of the debate, Bloomberg was on defense. He was attacked for not yet releasing his taxes, his early positions on Obamacare, his “stop and frisk” policing policies and, in one particularly poignant exchange, for his company’s record handling workplace complaints from female employees.

Bloomberg said his company, Bloomberg LP, had “no tolerance for the kind of behavior the Me Too movement has exposed.”

But Elizabeth Warren quickly pressed the former New York mayor on how many women who worked for him were subject to non-disclosure agreements and were unable to talk about harassment and abuse in the workplace.

Warren said the women were being “muzzled” by Bloomberg and she encouraged him to release the women for those agreements on stage.

“I hope you heard what his defense was: ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’” Warren said. “The mayor needs to stand on his record.”

Though his competition sought to put Bloomberg’s back against the wall, but the former Republican landed several blows of his own –describing Sanders and Warren as too left to beat Trump.

Not every moment was a brawl. Warren, at one point, came to Klobuchar’s defense about her recent failure to identify the president of Mexico in an interview

Klobuchar said she had “momentary forgetfulness.”

Buttigieg, who has frequently tussled with Klobuchar in previous debates, said Klobuchar is staking her candidacy on her Washington experience but failed to name Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, even though she serves on the Senate committee that oversees trade and border security.

“Are you trying to stay that I’m dumb? Are you mocking me?” Klobuchar asked Buttigieg. “People sometimes forget names.”

Warren jumped in to agree that forgetting a name happens to everyone and doesn’t by itself “indicate that you don’t understand what’s going on.”

The next debate takes place Feb. 25 in South Carolina, ahead of that state’s primary.

Biden’s closing remarks interrupted by immigration protesters

A group of protesters interrupted the former vice president’s closing remarks. Biden was able to keep his calm as the protesters chanted about the Obama administration deporting millions of people.

“You deported three million people!” they yelled.

The crowd booed and chanted “Joe” in response as the protesters were removed from the room.

Biden has been interrupted by protesters before, specifically over past administration's mass deportation policies.

- Savannah Behrmann

Biden: McConnell was ‘pain in the neck’ but I have been only candidate to beat him

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY., made his way onto the debate stage Wednesday night.

Biden declared that it’s not fair to say he's friends with McConnell, who Biden called a "pain in the neck" during his vice president years and beyond.

He also claimed that he was the only one on the stage that has beaten McConnell, and reiterated that he’s “been the object of his affection” regarding the impeachment trial.

Warren quickly brought up when Biden reportedly told McConnell: “Mitch, we want to see you come back" so they could work together.

Warren then asserted that it was not hitting McConnell harder that led to his re-election, which had consequences like him stealing “a Supreme Court seat from the Democrats.”

President Barack Obama had nominated Merrick Garland to succeed conservative Antonin Scalia, who had passed away.

McConnell immediately declared that there would be no appointment by Obama given that it was a presidential election year. At the time, McConnell's decision created a furor among Democrats in Washington and across the nation.

As Warren kept talking about McConnell, Klobuchar blurted out “oh my god.”

- Savannah Behrmann

Buttigieg v. Klobuchar

Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar scrapped it up again, this time sparked by her record on immigration-related issues.

Buttigieg criticized Klobuchar for having voted to make English the nation’s official language.

“Do you know the message that sends?” he asked.

Buttigieg also said Klobuchar has been more supportive of Trump’s judicial nominees than any of the other senators who ran for president.

While defending her record, Klobuchar jabbed back.

“I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” she said.

Klobuchar also accused Buttigieg of not having “been in the arena,” doing the work but just having “memorized a bunch of talking points.”

Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, countered that leading a diverse city that had been facing ruin may not sound like an arena to some. But, “you don’t have to be in Washington to matter.”

- Maureen Groppe

Sanders, Bloomberg take on capitalism and communism

Michael Bloomberg the billionaire and Bernie sanders the self-described ‘democratic socialist’ went after each other in what may be the sharpest fault line between the two frontrunners: their economic profiles.

Bloomberg gave a spirited defense of capitalism and essentially likened Sanders’ policies to communism.

“I’m not a communist, Mr. Bloomberg,” Sanders hit back at the former New York City mayor, calling it a “cheap shot.”

Bloomberg described himself as “lucky’ to have become a success and said “a good chunk of it” goes to paying taxes.

And a mayor, “I raised taxes.”

Sanders talked about how the richest Americans are benefitting from a form of “democratic socialism” that provides million in subsidies, so they can consolidate wealth while the poor are scrapping under a system of “rugged individualism” that shuts them out of economic opportunities.

Bloomberg said he worked hard to get what he has achieved but Sanders said he owes some of that success is due to the workers at his company that helped build his fortune.

Bloomberg then slammed Bloomberg as a millionaire who owns three homes.

- Ledyard King

Buttigieg asked about past praise for Sanders

Pete Buttigieg, who criticized Bernie Sanders as too radical, was asked about the award-winning essay he wrote in high school praising Sanders as a “profile in courage” for calling himself a socialist.

Buttigieg was asked why the change of mind – and whether that puts him out of step with his own generation since many millennials are comfortable with socialism.

It’s true, Buttigieg said, winning a laugh from Sanders, that “I was into Bernie before he was cool.”

But, Buttigieg added, he’d never written that he agreed with Sanders’ policies. But at least he was straight forward about what he believed in.

Pivoting to an attack, Buttigieg said Sanders has been clear that taxes will go up to pay for his health care plan, Medicare for All.

Sanders countered that people’s overall costs would go down because they wouldn’t pay anything for their health care.

Buttigieg shot back that Sanders hasn’t explained where he would get all the money to make sure that’s true.

- Maureen Groppe

Bloomberg, Sanders spar over taxes, billionaires

Bernie Sanders slammed Michael Bloomberg’s wealth in an extended debate over taxes and what he described as the “grotesque level of income and wealth inequality” in the United States.

“That’s wrong, that’s immoral,” Sanders said, noting that Bloomberg’s wealth vastly overshadows the earnings of virtually all Americans.

The back-and-forth was ostensibly over the nation’s tax code, and a desire from Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to raise taxes on the wealthy. Bloomberg said he was proud of the money he has earned – “I work very hard for it,” he said – and added that he strongly opposed the tax proposals supported by the liberal wing of the party.

“I can’t think of a way to make it easier for Donald Trump to get reelected than listening to this conversation,” Bloomberg said in an exasperated voice. Bloomberg said the country had tried “communism” and that it “just didn’t work.”

Mostly glossed over in the exchange: That Bloomberg has spent hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money to raise his profile in Super Tuesday states.

- John Fritze

Bloomberg asked about redlining

Joe Biden delivered a criticism of Mike Bloomberg but those unaware of his reference wouldn’t have known that’s what he was doing. It took the moderator to bring out the attack.

In a question about how his policies would affect small, minority-owned businesses, Biden brought up the discriminatory housing practice known as “redlining.”

It wasn’t redlining, but the greed of Wall Street, that caused the 2008 financial crisis, Biden said. That was an allusion to comments Bloomberg made in 2008 in which he said the crisis was started because banks were pressured to end redlining.

Asked by the moderator about that comment, Bloomberg called the idea that redlining caused the crisis exactly wrong. He added that he’s been on the record opposing redlining, a practice that is still going on in some places “and we’ve got to cut it out.”

- Maureen Groppe

Sanders: Climate change is a 'moral issue'

Bernie Sanders was asked how his call for a total ban on natural gas extraction fracking could hurt Democrats’ efforts to carry the battleground state of Pennsylvania. What would you tell the workers whose livelihoods depend on fracking?

Sanders said he would say that scientists warn that there will be irreparable damage to the planet if bold action isn’t taken in the next six or seven years.

“This is an existential threat,” he said. “This is a moral issue.”

- Maureen Groppe

Sanders: Bloomberg’s Republican past should not be forgotten

Michael Bloomberg’s policies targeting communities of color and his non-disclosure agreements with a number of women over potential harassment claims at his company are bad enough, according to Bernie Sanders.

But that’s not the only reason he’s a bad choice to take on Donald Trump in November, Sanders said.

The Vermont senator went after Bloomberg on his political past as a Republican who endorsed President George W. Bush in 2004 and gave a small fortune to Republican causes for years,

And, “maybe we can talk about a billionaire saying that we should not raise the minimum wage, or that we should cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid,” Sanders said.

Bloomberg switched to the GOP to run for mayor but later switched in the middle of his tenure to run as an independent. He became a Democrat in 2018 and started funding Democratic candidates and causes.

- Ledyard King

Warren comes to Klobuchar’s defense

A question to Amy Klobuchar about her failure to identify the president of Mexico in a recent interview led to a back-and-forth with Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren coming to her female colleague’s defense.

Klobuchar said she had “momentary forgetfulness” that doesn’t reflect what she knows about Mexico and how much she cares about it.

Buttigieg countered that Klobuchar is staking her candidacy on her Washington experience and she failed to name Mexico’s president when she’s on the Senate committee that oversees trade and border security

“Are you trying to stay that I’m dumb? Are you mocking me?” Klobuchar asked Buttigieg. “People sometimes forget names.”

Warren jumped in to agree that forgetting a name happens to everyone and doesn’t by itself “indicate that you don’t understand what’s going on.”

- Maureen Groppe

Bloomberg put back on heels over women in the workplace

Michael Bloomberg came under rapid fire from the rest of the field over his past comments about women and the way women have been treated at his company in an exchange that will almost certainly be seen a key moment in the debate.

Bloomberg said his company, Bloomberg LP, had “no tolerance for the kind of behavior the Me Too movement has exposed.”

But Elizabeth Warren quickly followed up, pressing Bloomberg on how many women who worked for him were subject to non-disclosure agreements and unable to talk about harassment and abuse in the workplace.

“I hope you heard what his defense was: ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’” Warren said. “The mayor needs to stand on his record.”

Warren – and then Joe Biden – urged Bloomberg to release women from the non-disclosure agreements on stage, which Bloomberg declined to do. Warren described the women as being “muzzled” by the NDAs.

“They decided, when they made an agreement, that they wanted to keep it quiet for everyone’s interest,” Bloomberg said.

- John Fritze

Klobuchar defends prosecutorial record

Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s prosecutorial record was questioned during Wednesday’s debate when moderators asked her why black voters should trust her given some of her past cases that have recently been drawn to light.

Specifically, Klobuchar had to defend her record regarding the case when an 11-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet while doing homework at her dining room table in 2002.

Klobuchar’s office put Tyesha Edwards’ alleged killer, a black teen at the time, behind bars for life.

New reports from the Associated Press show that Myon Burrell, the alleged killer, may have been wrongfully convicted.

Klobuchar said that all evidence from the case, old and new, should be reviewed.

She also continued that she has to “earn” the vote of African American voters across the nation, but has done so in her community.

- Savannah Behrmann

Bloomberg: ‘I’ve asked for forgiveness’ on stop-and-frisk

Michael Bloomberg, who has been on an apology tour for his controversial ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ policing program that targeted minority communities in high-crime neighborhoods in New York City, became defensive on the debate stage.

Both Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren went after the former mayor, saying its efforts to go after community of colors proved to be a mistake that unfairly persecuted the city’s most vulnerable residents.

"The policy was abhorrent,” said Biden, who added that the program only stopped after President Barack Obama sent monitors to stop the program.

“When the mayor says that he apologized, listen closely to the apology,” Warren chimed in. “This isn’t about how it turned out, this is about what it was designed to do to begin with…. If you want to issue a real apology, then the apology has to start with the intent of the plan as it was put together and the willful ignorance day by day by day of admitting what was happening even as people protested in your own street.”

Bloomberg responded that the policy was already in place in some form before he became mayor and that the number of deaths per year in the city dropped from 650 to 300 due in part to Stop and Frisk.

But he said the city went overboard.

"I've asked for forgiveness, but the bottom line is that we stopped too many people,” he said. “But there is no great answer to a lot of problems and if we took off everybody that was wrong on this panel, everybody that was wrong on criminal justice at some time in the careers, nobody else would be up here.”

- Ledyard King

Sanders, Bloomberg spar over heart health

A battle that broke out earlier this week on the campaign trial between Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg over their heart health made an appearance on the debate stage. Sanders was asked whether his decision to withhold additional medical records despite suffering a heart attack in October undercut his vow for transparency.

Sanders noted that he had released some documents and tried to quickly shift attention to Bloomberg, who had two coronary stents placed in 2000 after a positive stress test. Bloomberg fired back that the operation was 20 years ago.

Sanders suggested that Bloomberg follow him around on the campaign trail for several days and “see how you’re doing compared to me.”

- John Fritze

Candidates address attacks on Culinary Union members from ‘Bernie bros’

The candidates got heated over recent attacks from some of Sen. Bernie Sanders most vocal supports, known as “Bernie bros”

Pete Buttigieg claimed Sanders was “at war with the [Nevada’s] Culinary Union” after some of the Vermont Senator's supporters reportedly threatened members for criticizing Sanders' "Medicare for All" plan.

“We are all responsible for our supporters and need to step up,” he said, continuing that the attacks are a reflection of what Sanders leadership is drawing out of them.

Sanders responded that his campaign has "have more union support than you have ever dreamed of" while addressing the “Bernie bros” attacks.

“If there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack union leaders, then I disown those people. They are not part of our movement,” he said.

However, he said that this isn't an issue specific to his campaign, telling the other candidates to look at the attacks members of his campaign have faced, especially those towards African American women.

The Culinary Union represents 60,000 housekeepers, porters and bartenders working in Las Vegas casinos. At the top of the union’s presidential asks is to maintain the robust health care plans members have fought hard to negotiate and win.

The union announced last week that it would not endorse a candidate ahead of the caucuses this Saturday.

- Savannah Behrmann

Sanders defends Medicare for All

Sanders, asked if Nevada’s powerful Culinary Union’s criticism of his health care plan is correct, had a simple answer.

“No,” Sanders said.

The union fears workers that under Medicare for All they would have to give up their hard-fought health care benefits for coverage that might not be as good.

Sanders promised never to sign a bill that would give them worse benefits.

“We will only expand for them, for every union in America for the working class of this country,” Sanders said.

The union has circulated flyers saying Medicare for All would “end Culinary Healthcare” but chose not to endorse any of the candidates who offer an alternative approach.

Elizabeth Warren, who backs a version of Medicare for All, went after the more moderate plans of her competitors. She dismissed Pete Buttigieg’s “Medicare for all who want it” proposal as a powerpoint plan. Amy Klobuchar’s health care proposal, Warren sniffed, is nothing more than a post-it note.

Klobuchar said she took personal offense at that because “post-it notes were invented in my state.”

-Maureen Groppe

Debate takes sharp turn, reflecting state of race

The first moments of the Democratic debate in Las Vegas have been far sharper than any other so far in the race of the Democratic nomination – for good reason.

Michael Bloomberg has hit Bernie Sanders as too liberal to win in the general election. Elizabeth Warren attacked Bloomberg and described Amy Klobuchar’s health care plan as a “Post-it note.” Pete Buttigieg called Sanders and Bloomberg the two most polarizing figures on the stage.

“Can I just say I take personal offense because Post-it notes were invited in my state,” joked Klobuchar, who represents Minnesota in the Senate.

“You don’t put your money on a number that’s not even on the wheel,” Klobuchar fired back on health care, arguing that the Medicare-for-All plans supported by Sanders and Warren were unrealistic.

The sharp elbows underscored the sea changes taking place in the presidential campaign, compounding the long-running divide in the party between the more centrist candidates like Joe Biden and Buttigieg and liberals like Sanders and Warren. Not only is Bloomberg rearranging that narrative with his first appearance on stage -- and his momentum in polling -- but the race has become more defined by Sanders’ narrow win in New Hampshire and his virtual tie with Buttigieg in Iowa.

That means several of the candidates – including Bloomberg and Sanders – are suddenly targets for the rest of the field. Others, including Biden and Klobuchar, are battling for a performance that would allow them to place in the Nevada caucuses this weekend.

- John Fritze

Warren: Democrats should not nominate Bloomberg because of racist, misogynistic actions

The first big shot at Michael Bloomberg came from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren who slammed the former New York City mayor.

Democrats should not nominate someone who is “hiding his tax returns of harassing women and of supporting racist policies like redlining and stop and frisk.” Or a ““billionaire who calls women fat broads and horseface lesbians.”

Warren, who is trailing in the polls, came out fiercely, saying it would be a mistake to nominate Bloomberg because "Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one billionaire for another." a reference to Trump

Blomberg, who has apologized for the ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ policing policy that targeted neighborhoods of color in New York, emphasized his electability.

“I think we have two questions to face tonight. One is, who can beat Donald Trump. And number two, we can do the job as they get into the White House,” he said. “I would argue that I am the candidate that can do exactly most of those things. I'm a New Yorker, I know how to take on an arrogant con man like Donald Trump comes from New York.”

- Ledyard king

Buttigieg goes after Sanders and Bloomberg 

Pete Buttigieg, in his first chance at bat, said the party is facing the prospect of the only candidates being left standing after Super Tuesday being Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg – whom he called the two most polarizing figures on the stage.

Most Americans will feel left out if forced to choose between a socialist who thinks capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks money is the root of all power.

Let’s put someone forward who is “actually a Democrat,” Buttigieg said. Democrats can do better than either a candidate who wants to burn the party down and one who “wants to buy this party.”

- Maureen Groppe

Bloomberg vows to take on ‘arrogant, con-man’ Trump

Michael Bloomberg, who has repeatedly taken fire from President Donald Trump since entering the race for the Democratic nomination, delivered some of it back to the president on the stage early in the debate.

Saying he was speaking as a “New Yorker,” Bloomberg said he knew how to “take on arrogant con man like Donald Trump.”

“I know how to run a complicated city, the biggest, most diverse city in this country,” Bloomberg said. “I'm a philanthropist who didn't inherit his money, but made his money.”

In the early moments of a debate that started off far more feisty than the previous exchanges between the candidates, Bloomberg has been forced to both introduce his campaign and explain during the debate why he is best qualified to beat Trump, should he win the nomination.

-John Fritze

Sanders is given first chance to whack Bloomberg

The first question of the ninth debate was about former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was making his first appearance on the stage.

Bernie Sanders, who is leading in the polls, was asked why he’s a better candidate to beat President Donald Trump than Bloomberg, who is pitching himself as a centrist.

Sanders said beating Trump will require the largest voter turnout in history and Bloomberg can’t do that because of his past support for the controversial “stop-and-frisk” police strategy.

Sanders that “went after the African American and Latino people in an outrageous way.”

By contrast, Sanders said, he’s bringing together people of all races and backgrounds around and agenda that works for all everyone and “not just the billionaire class.”

- Maureen Groppe

Bloomberg speaks, slams Sanders

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made his debut remarks in a Democratic debate by slamming Sen. Bernie Sanders, suggesting that the Vermont senator could not build a winning coalition to take on President Donald Trump.

Bloomberg said Sanders couldn’t win by basing his campaign largely on a health care plan that he said would force millions of Americans to switch off their private coverage.

“That’s just not a way that you go and start building a coalition,” Bloomberg said in his first remarks on the debate stage.

If Sanders wins the nomination, Bloomberg said, “We will have Donald Trump for another four years.”

- John Fritze