Making Pitch to Voters, Bloomberg Peddles His Experience in a Crisis

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Hobbled by lackluster debate performances and with time running short, Michael R. Bloomberg is trying to refocus his presidential campaign on his experience dealing with disasters as the mayor of New York, hoping to draw a stark contrast with President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus and the managerial records of some of his Democratic opponents.

With a sharpened speech on the campaign trail and a slick new television commercial, Mr. Bloomberg is emphasizing what he sees as his biggest selling point — managing the unexpected, unwieldy problems that require a large-scale mobilization of resources and leadership that has been tested in moments of crisis.

At a moment when many Democratic voters seem to want a candidate with the passion and empathy that Mr. Bloomberg lacks, it is not clear that such a technocratic approach will work. And as Mr. Bloomberg makes his closing argument to voters ahead of the Super Tuesday contests — the first time he will appear on the ballot this year — he is not asking for love or adulation.

“You have to have the credibility that people believe you know what you’re doing,” Mr. Bloomberg said in an interview after he spoke to several hundred people in northeastern Tennessee on Friday. “Even if you didn’t like me when I was in office — and it’s hard to believe but there were a couple people like that,” he added, flashing a wry smile, “you at least thought that I was the adult in the room. And being the adult in the room is what’s important.”

His campaign has spent close to $1.5 million over the last two days alone broadcasting a commercial that extols his experience in managing crises, from ones that will likely seem familiar, like Hurricane Sandy, to ones that may seem more obscure, like the swine flu pandemic of 2009.

In the interview, he played down the significance of his widely panned debate performance in Nevada last week and swung hard at his Democratic rivals for lacking the experience and accomplishment that he has.

“I’m not running to be the college debater in chief,” he said, “I’m running to be the commander in chief. I have the capability. I have been training for it for 20 years.

“Nobody else on that stage has any understanding of how to run something. They are all legislators and legislators don’t have to give results. They pass bills that never get funded, never get enacted.”

It’s a make-or-break moment for Mr. Bloomberg, whose lavish spending and unconventional campaign strategy — he is skipping the first four nominating states — will get their first test at the ballot box on Tuesday. Polls show him garnering between 13 and 19 percent support nationally; two polls released Friday of California, Super Tuesday’s biggest prize, showed him at 12 percent.

As he traveled across the South this week, Mr. Bloomberg tried to convey the part of his record that highlights the competence and cool-headedness he says are missing in the White House. On Friday, Mr. Bloomberg went after one of Mr. Trump’s biggest vulnerabilities, the performance of the stock market, telling a crowd of several hundred in Memphis that the steep sell-off over the last several days was a direct result of the president’s failure to reassure the country that he can lead.

Investors, he said, were “pricing the management incompetence” of Mr. Trump into trading, which has officially pushed the market into a correction — a drop of 10 percent or more from its most recent peak.

“This week the stock market has plunged, partly out of fear but also because investors have no confidence that the president is capable of managing a crisis,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

Mr. Bloomberg’s record as mayor has been attacked during his time on the campaign trail by his critics and rivals, in part because of his own habit of making misleading statements about controversial policies such as the stop-and-frisk policing tactic. On the debate stage, other Democrats, led by Senator Elizabeth Warren, laced into him over stop-and-frisk, his past misogynistic comments, and the nondisclosure agreements his company had struck with former employees.

Mr. Bloomberg had several major policy accomplishments during his tenure to point to, such as a ban on smoking in restaurants that led to a decline in smoking rates across the city, and restrictions on fatty foods sold in restaurants.

But he has been slow and sterile in his presentation of his bonafides, something that has privately frustrated some of his former aides from his mayoral days.

Whether his phlegmatic sales pitch, coming in the final week before Super Tuesday, will be enough to lift him up remains to be seen.

Kathy Wylde, the president and chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, said that Mr. Bloomberg’s struggles in selling his record as mayor simply reflect his lack of political dexterity.

“I think the essence is he’s the anti-politician,” said Ms. Wylde, who knew Mr. Bloomberg as mayor. “He essentially thinks that his record should speak for itself, and I don’t think he feels the need to defend or explain himself. And that makes him a good professional manager and a poor political persona.”

Mr. Bloomberg is an engineer by training. His fixation on the operational and logistical as mayor often came at the expense of political and emotional considerations. The slogan for his presidential campaign, “Mike Will Get It Done,” reflects his head-over-heart, results-oriented approach to governing.

When he spoke to a crowd of several hundred in Bentonville, Ark., on Thursday night, Mr. Bloomberg elaborated on the meaning of “it” in his slogan.

“You’ve heard the slogan ‘Mike Will Get It Done.’ If you haven’t, I’ve wasted a lot of money,” he joked. (His spending on advertising in the race so far is more than half a billion dollars.)

“Let me tell you what ‘it’ is,” Mr. Bloomberg went on. “‘It’ means beating Donald Trump in November, and sending him back to the golf course.”

Jeremy W. Peters reported from Clarksville, Tenn., and Maggie Haberman from New York.

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