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Democratic voters unimpressed by Bloomberg's first debate performance

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Image: Bloomberg Campaign Office Hosts Debate Watch Party
Supporters watch the Democratic presidential primary debate during a watch party at the Mike Bloomberg Brooklyn field office Wednesday night in New York.   -   Copyright  Jeenah Moon Getty Images
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One after another, Democratic presidential candidates took turns at the start of their latest debate to take shots at former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. And each time, the crowd at The Abbey, a gay bar in West Hollywood, reacted with uproarious cheers.

They cheered when Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., criticized Bloomberg for spending his way onto the debate stage, and when Pete Buttiegeg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said the party should nominate "someone who is actually a Democrat" — referring to Bloomberg — the crowd laughed and clapped again.

The Democratic presidential debate Wednesday night in Las Vegas, hosted by NBC News, was Bloomberg's first appearance in a primary contest since he announced his candidacy. The three-term mayor of New York, who's been elected as a Republican and an Independent, is a billionaire who made his fortune through a financial services and news company that bears his name. He has self-financed his campaign so far.

As Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Pete Buttigieg are seen on a screen, people participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate watch party at Las Vegas LGBT Center on Wednesday night.
As Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Pete Buttigieg are seen on a screen, people participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate watch party at Las Vegas LGBT Center on Wednesday night.Alex Wong

The applause at the West Hollywood watch party, hosted by the local chapter of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, reached a crescendo when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., asked Bloomberg if he would release female employees from non-disclosure agreements, legal contracts that prevent someone from talking publicly about an incident, usually signed in exchange for money.

An unknown number of women who worked for Bloomberg have signed NDAs, some because of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. Bloomberg said he would not release the women from the NDAs because they were signed "consensually."

"He's toast," quipped Dwight Clarke, 70, who lives in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.

"He looked pathetic," said Sara Rosenstock, 60, of Los Angeles. "He didn't look like his commercials."

The gleeful reaction to jabs at Bloomberg were a theme at several debate watch parties around the country as prospective Democratic voters were happy to see candidates take on the billionaire for the first time.

Joanna Popper, who lives in Los Angeles and supports Warren, said she's going to vote for whoever ends up as the Democratic nominee.

"There are some candidates up there representing the best of our party, and others who are not," she said.

Rae Sanni, who grew up in Brooklyn but now lives in Los Angeles, felt like Bloomberg transformed New York into a "rich people's playground" and didn't care for poor people or people of color. The standout moment for Sanni was when Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, said Bloomberg had more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. Sanni said Bloomberg's response — that he deserved the money because he worked hard for it — was condescending.

"That speaks to an aloofness and a removal and a lack of relatability that I don't want," said Sanni, a Warren supporter. "We have that in Trump. I don't want it."

In Michigan, Al Elvin, a lawyer and president of the Detroit Alphas, a local chapter of the nation's oldest black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, wasn't impressed by how Bloomberg responded to questions about stop-and-frisk. The policy once widely used by police in New York City largely targeted black and Latino males for random searches on the street and was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2013 as Bloomberg was about to leave office.

"I've been that boy," Elvin said, referring to men stopped by police in New York City, his hometown. "I've been that boy and it's not even the law here [in Detroit]. I've been through it. I have three sons and when you talk about stop and frisk, I start to think of them."

Warren appeared to pick up support from undecided voters at debate watch parties in Nevada and Texas.

In Las Vegas, Jasmine Campuzano, 18, said she's been waiting for four years to cast a vote against President Donald Trump. She watched the debate to make sure the person she casts her first presidential vote for doesn't surprise her later. She came away from the debate still undecided, "but I like how Elizabeth [Warren] is answering the questions," she said.

The Las Vegas watch party, hosted by the Nevada Conservation League and Chispa Nevada, an environmental group that advocates for Latino communities, seemed to also like Warren's answers. The crowd went quiet when the topic switched to climate change and the environment. The watchers then returned their biggest applause when Warren declared, "We cannot continue to allow our public lands to be used for profit."

In Houston, Kirby Avila, 28, left a beer bar leaning toward Warren after the debate.

"She's so sharp, and I think it's time for a woman," Avila said.

Tyler Kingkade reported from Los Angeles, Erin Einhorn from Detroit, Anita Hassan from Las Vegas and Mike Hixenbaugh from Houston.