Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg endured a punishing assault on Wednesday during his debut Democratic presidential debate from rivals who savaged him for parachuting in late and throwing astronomical amounts of money at the race.
The Las Vegas showdown marked the most contentious of the nine debates to date in the 2020 cycle at a tense time in the party's nomination race, with leftist firebrand Bernie Sanders coalescing as the front runner and some challengers fighting for their very survival.
US media magnate Bloomberg found himself the target from the start, as candidates from Sanders to former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Amy Klobuchar impugned the man whose sudden prominence in polling has scrambled the race to defeat President Donald Trump.
"Understand this: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another," Senator Elizabeth Warren said in a fiery attack on Bloomberg.
"Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist policies like... stop and frisk," she said, referring to a crime prevention strategy that disproportionately impacted people of color in New York.
Sanders hit Bloomberg hard on acquiring vast wealth at a time of "grotesque" income inequality in America.
"Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans," Sanders said in one of the night's many abrasive moments. "That's wrong. That's immoral."
All eyes were on Bloomberg as he navigated a 2020 national audience for the first time, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on campaign advertising.
Bloomberg's appearance was a very public vetting, and he struggled to highlight his roles as problem solver, businessman, city manager and philanthropist.
He found himself on the defensive when pressed to explain sexual harassment claims against him and employees, his delay in releasing his taxes and more.
But he pushed back forcefully against Sanders, saying if the self-declared democratic socialist is the nominee, "we will have Donald Trump for another four years."
When Sanders questioned whether there should be billionaires, Bloomberg landed a rare punch, saying such talk would only "make it easier" for Trump to win re-election.
"We're not going to throw out capitalism," he said. "Other countries tried that. It was called communism and it just didn't work."
'Actually a Democrat'
Sanders has been buoyed by a strong showing in Iowa, a New Hampshire victory and a surge in polling with the next nominating contest, in Nevada, just three days away.
But establishment Democrats have begun public handwringing about the prospects of Sanders taking the reins of a party seeking to make Trump a one-term president.
Pete Buttigieg, the moderate young former mayor of South Bend, Indiana who scored a surprise narrow victory in Iowa, levelled a hit on both Sanders and Bloomberg with a withering critique.
"We shouldn't have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out," Buttigieg said.
"Let's put forward someone who's actually a Democrat," he added.
Bloomberg was a Democrat before running for mayor as a Republican and then an independent. He returned to the Democratic Party in 2018.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll out on Wednesday showed Sanders with a commanding double-digit lead nationally, at 32%.
Sagging former frontrunner Biden was second at 16%, followed by Bloomberg at 14 and Warren at 12.
Biden's poor showing in the first two states placed him under enormous pressure to do well in Nevada and then South Carolina, which votes on February 29.
He spoke evocatively on climate change, and criticised Sanders over immigration policy and gun reform, but it remained to be seen whether it will help him in Nevada and beyond.
While Sanders and other White House hopefuls have spent months barnstorming early states, billionaire Bloomberg jumped late into the Democratic contest.
He is going all in on so-called Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states including California and Texas vote on choosing a Democratic nominee.
While Sanders leads, Bloomberg is surging on the national stage. Two separate polls released on Tuesday show him leapfrogging rivals to claim second spot behind Sanders, with Biden third.
For Warren and Klobuchar, the debate was a critical chance to convince voters that they belong in the race as it goes national.
As Democrats trained fire on one another, Klobuchar reminded candidates that their real opponent was the White House occupant.
"We have not been talking enough about Donald Trump," she said.
The president meanwhile weighed in from afar, mocking fellow New York billionaire Bloomberg.
"I hear he's getting pounded tonight," Trump told a rally in Phoenix.