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Mike Bloomberg Hits The Campaign Trail, Taking On Trump And His Past

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Michael Bloomberg has emerged as a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. The former New York mayor's success depends on the primary field being muddled headed into Super Tuesday, and so far, he's getting what he needs. Bloomberg is campaigning in states that vote on that big primary date and that get less attention from other candidates. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: First and foremost, Michael Bloomberg wants voters to know his top priority.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: So let me be very clear about why I am in this race - I am running to defeat Donald Trump.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: At stops over the past few days in three states that vote on Super Tuesday, March 3, venues large and small were always full - sometimes overflowing - from coffee shops to community centers to hotel ballrooms. Many of these voters are still undecided; many say that curiosity drew them here. Take 69-year-old Michael Day of Winston-Salem, N.C., yesterday. He says he knows some Democrats say Bloomberg is trying to buy the presidency.

MICHAEL DAY: I don't disagree with that statement. But at this point in our history, that's what it's going to take. Money seems to rule the political process. None of us likes it, but it's a fact. We have to deal with it.

GONYEA: And he says Bloomberg can handle the fight with Trump. Within hours, he got a real-time example. That's when Trump tweeted about Bloomberg, quote, "Mini Mike is a 5-foot-4 mass of dead energy." Bloomberg quickly tweeted back saying, behind your back, they laugh at you and call you a carnival-barking clown. Then, onstage in Greensboro...

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BLOOMBERG: He calls me little Mike. And the answer is, Donald, where I come from, we measure your height from your neck up.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: North Carolina voter Marion Johnson (ph) came out to see Bloomberg yesterday. She says she's intrigued. She's looking for a more centrist candidate. She likes the former mayor and his record but brings up one controversy that Bloomberg has been dealing with all week.

MARION JOHNSON: I know there are some things - stop and frisk, I think that was an unfortunate choice that some people thought this will work.

GONYEA: Stop and frisk was a program Bloomberg expanded as mayor that allowed police to make random stops to frisk citizens for weapons. The result was a disproportionate number of minorities being targeted. Then, this week, an audio recording surfaced from 2015 of the former mayor defending the program and appearing to support racial profiling. President Trump, seizing the moment, posted a tweet that he later deleted, calling Bloomberg racist. This is how Bloomberg responded to the controversy on the campaign trail.

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BLOOMBERG: Those words don't reflect Michael Bloomberg's way he governed in New York City, the way he runs his company, the way his philanthropy works.

GONYEA: The controversy does put a spotlight on the battle for the African American vote, seen as key to any Democrat. Bloomberg has been highlighting his work to improve public schools, his support of historically black colleges and universities, the jobs he's created and his high-profile push on gun violence. Last night, he sponsored a rally in Houston called Mike for Black America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL")

YOLANDA ADAMS: (Singing) Oh, beautiful, for amber waves of grain...

GONYEA: That's gospel singer Yolanda Adams, who's from Houston. Speaker after speaker vouched for Bloomberg. This week, there have also been endorsements from members of the Congressional Black Caucus and from prominent African American mayors. At the Houston gathering, Bloomberg was introduced by Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has also endorsed him. Mayor Turner did talk about stop and frisk and says he appreciated that Bloomberg now acknowledges it was bad policy, and the mayor appreciates the public apology Bloomberg has made on the issue.

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SYLVESTER TURNER: Because I'm someone who believes that you don't judge people by the mistakes they make; you judge people by their ability to fess up and then work collectively to move you forward.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: And when Bloomberg took the stage, he made a pledge.

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BLOOMBERG: And I can promise you, as president, I will leave a full-frontal assault on racial injustice and on those who try to spread intolerance and hatred.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: Such events won't end the criticism of Bloomberg. Another controversy broke later in the week about comments he once made about redlining, a discriminatory lending policy. But Bloomberg clearly has high-profile advocates in the African American community to make sure the rest of his record is highlighted. The first test of all this with voters will be on Super Tuesday.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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