If it was a fight, Michael Bloomberg might have been saved by the bell in Las Vegas.
Looking every bit like a rusty fighter who hadn't been in the ring in more than a decade, the former New York City mayor struggled mightily in his first presidential debate as five more-seasoned rivals swung away at him, hitting him with questions about policing, lawsuits by former employees, and his immense wealth.
Despite knowing that his opponents were almost certainly going to be targeting the new septuagenarian on the block, Bloomberg appeared flat-footed, especially when pressed by Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden about whether he would allow women to speak who had signed non-disclosure agreements with his company.
"Maybe they didn't like a joke I told," Bloomberg said of the women, sounding like someone's uncle on the wrong side of the #MeToo battle.
Bloomberg also had a tough time explaining his recent apology for supporting the controversial police tactic of stop-and-frisk for more than a decade while he was mayor. But on that topic he was rescued by NBC's moderators who moved the debate to another question and to another candidate, often the only way Bloomberg got a break on the debate stage.
On policy issues, the former mayor was somewhat stronger. At one point, Bloomberg looked like he would practically hug panelist Jon Ralston who asked him about coal rather than his 12-year record in City Hall — which was being vivisected on live TV for portions of the two-hour showdown.
The good news for Bloomberg is that he's not on the ballot in Nevada on Saturday and he has a chance to alleviate some of the debate's damage by appearing in another debate in South Carolina in less than a week.
And the former mayor's stumbles may very well not turn into a collapse in the polls. Bloomberg's road to City Hall in 2001 wasn't paved along the traditional campaign trail, where he proved less than adept. Instead, the rich political rookie ruled the airwaves with effective ads that ripped his rival Mark Green while trumpeting his endorsement from a then-popular Rudy Giuliani.
Bloomberg and his team are likely banking on the belief that a bad two hours on TV can be pre-empted by millions of dollars-worth of 30-second ads between now and Super Tuesday.
Just minutes after the debate ended, Bloomberg's campaign sent out an e-mail with the headline: "We can keep up the momentum."
We'll find out if all the money in the world can still buy it.
For more of Bob's columns, visit the NY1 Political Buzz homepage.
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