DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So for the first time, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is going to debate his fellow Democratic candidates on stage. He will join Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on stage in Las Vegas this evening. Bloomberg, a multibillionaire, has stolen headlines in recent days as he has been rising in the polls with, we should say, support from a huge campaign staff, also more than 125 offices around the country and big-budget ad campaigns.
Let's talk about this moment in the race with David Axelrod. He was chief campaign strategist and a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama. He's host of the podcast "Hacks On Tap" and "The Axe Files." David, thanks for being here.
DAVID AXELROD: Good to be here, David. Thank you.
GREENE: So I think of Bloomberg - I mean, it strikes me as, like, almost walking into a party that's been going on for a while. Like, the conversations are already deep in.
GREENE: And he's, like - has to kind of get some attention and get a name for himself. Like, what would you tell him about this night if you were advising him? What does he have to do here?
AXELROD: Well, he has a name for himself. He's bought it with $400 million in advertising, which is unprecedented. I think it's more than we probably spent in 2012 for the president's reelection. And what's happening now, though, is that he has to step out from behind those ads. And walking into the middle of a campaign like this and into a debate like this is really, really difficult because you have candidates who are in midseason form. This is their ninth debate. They are all better than they were at the beginning. They are in fighting trim.
And Bloomberg is not, as a - you know, reputationally, a great debater. His forensics is not his forte. And he is going to be a target because what that $400 million has bought him is good poll numbers. And he has suddenly emerged as a likely alternative to Bernie Sanders, while the others are fighting for survival here. So all in all, it should be a really challenging night for him.
GREENE: Wow. So a lot could happen. I mean, he might cement himself as a real alternative, or if he doesn't perform well, this could throw the race into even more chaos.
AXELROD: It could, although, you know, $60 billion can buy you a lot of mulligans. And, you know, he may - you know, I can't - I won't say that this is life or death for him in this race, but it's important because in presidential races, people really do get to know you. Years ago, I said they were like MRIs for the soul. And, you know, no matter how many ads you have, ultimately, you have to come into contact with the media, with people, and they do assess you. And so this is a very important night for him.
GREENE: Well, let's listen to a little bit of what money can buy. I mean, Bloomberg - actually not just Bloomberg, but several of the candidates have been trying to align themselves with your former boss, President Obama. But Bloomberg has put out a number of ads highlighting their relationship, and they sound like this.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Together, they worked to combat gun violence and again to improve education for every child.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want to thank the mayor of this great city, Mayor Bloomberg, for his extraordinary leadership. I share your determination to bring this country together, to finally make progress for the American people.
GREENE: What are your thoughts when you hear that?
AXELROD: I think it's a pretty shrewd ad - that's my first thought. And you're right; he's just one of several candidates - obviously, the vice president has an ad like that and a great claim to it because he was a governing partner with the president. Mayor Bloomberg's relationship with the president was a working relationship. They did work together on some issues. They weren't terribly close. They weren't best buds.
But I've gotten calls from people across the country saying, gee, I didn't know Obama has endorsed Bloomberg. And, you know, the difference between his ad and the other ads is he's got, you know, $50 or $100 million behind it, and everyone has seen it, and it's ubiquitous, and it's national. And it's created an impression that I think has a lot to do with the fact that he has risen in the polls. And some of that rise has come by dint of his progress with African American voters for whom Obama is a particular icon. So I think it is a smart move that has - is suggestive of an endorsement that has not been given.
GREENE: Well, let me - speaking of endorsements, I mean, do - Joe Biden could use help right now, I mean, looking at his poll numbers. Do you think that Obama might endorse his former vice president of eight years at some point? And how - has this been hard for Obama to watch Biden slide?
AXELROD: Well, I mean, he obviously has a great deal of affection for Joe Biden. I watched their relationship over eight years grow into a really meaningful friendship. But his view has been that his role as a former president is best as someone who brings the party together once voters have made their decisions and not to put his thumb on the scale for any candidate. And I don't anticipate that that's going to change anytime soon.
GREENE: I want to play a little bit more tape for you, if you don't mind, David.
GREENE: Our White House correspondent Tamara Keith was talking to the former Democratic Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, last night.
GREENE: And he actually mentioned President Obama while talking about the prospect of a brokered convention, if the party is not able to choose a nominee on the first round of voting in July. And here's what Reid said.
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HARRY REID: Well, I would consider it if I was asked to help. Maybe we could even get Barack Obama to do it. The two most popular people in the country, perhaps the world, are Barack and Michelle Obama.
GREENE: Do you see the potential of the Obamas litigating a brokered convention if it comes to that?
AXELROD: You know, I really don't. Again, I think that - I mean, the president, I'm sure, will want to play a constructive role. He's invested - you know, my conversations with him, my sense is he's deeply invested in helping the Democratic nominee. And the question is, what is the best way to be helpful here, appropriate to his role? I'm sure if he's asked to play a role, he would try and play a constructive role.
I think the person who has the most at stake here beyond the presidential race is Nancy Pelosi because she's trying to maintain a Democratic House, and who is at the top of that ticket will be a deeply meaningful to her. And so she and others who are active right now will probably be called on to play a role in resolving this if there is such a convention. And we don't know yet if that scenario will come into play. It seems more likely today than it did two weeks ago, but it's still more likely than not that somehow this will resolve itself between now and then.
GREENE: In the few seconds we have left, Bernie Sanders is - I mean, his rise, his front-runner status is scaring a lot of more moderate Democrats. Do you see Sanders overcoming those fears and bringing the party together?
AXELROD: I don't know. I mean, winning tends to beget winning, and you look more like a winner when you win, and you look more like a loser when you lose. Sanders is winning, and that is helpful, but there is this fear. I don't know if it's as warranted as people think, and I don't know that it's not. All I remember is, four years ago, Republicans having the same conversations about Donald Trump, and he did quite well.
GREENE: David Axelrod, former chief campaign strategist for President Obama. Really appreciate it, David.
AXELROD: Great being with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.