Live at 9 p.m. ET: The brawl to settle it all

The headline is half-true. The nomination is already settled but tonight’s debate really should be a brawl. Every candidate onstage has an incentive to throw down. Specifically, to throw down with Mike Bloomberg.

For the likely also-rans, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, this may be the last moment to avert a slide into obscurity after a strong early performance. Klobuchar knows firsthand how much a debate win can do for a candidate’s fortunes; she was headed nowhere in New Hampshire until she came up big in the final TV scrum among the candidates before election day. With the centrist lane newly crowded by Bloomberg’s polling surge and with Biden poised for a win in South Carolina next week, Klobuchar and Buttigieg each need to assert themselves to remain part of the conversation. Otherwise the narrative tomorrow and probably through Super Tuesday will be “Bernie vs. Bloomy vs. Biden.” If one of them can knock Bloomberg back, maybe that arrests his rise in the polls and gets him/her noticed in Nevada.

Elizabeth Warren is a wild card in that she’s proved herself willing and able to attack the competition — with one conspicuous exception — and did poorly enough in New Hampshire that there are no remaining expectations for her campaign. She has nothing to lose tonight by blowing up everyone around her, as a bad result in Nevada in Saturday will probably force her from the race. Her prime target will be Bloomberg, whom she’s going to lambaste as everything that’s wrong with American politics. I think she’s calculating that if she hits him hard enough and memorably enough, it may rekindle a little progressive interest in her. But that would be naive; no one’s climbing off the Bernie express en route to likely victory this summer in order to climb aboard a Warren train that’s been losing steam since October. Which raises an intriguing possibility: Is tonight the night she finally goes after Bernie? If she can’t win lefties, her only option is to try to barge in on the centrist muddle and try to grab the attention of moderates as a candidate capable of channeling their angst about Sanders while also proposing ambitious Bernie-lite reforms.

I don’t think she’ll do it. I think she’d rather lose than derail progressivism’s victory, even if that victory ends up going to a different candidate. If I’m wrong about that, why didn’t she come after Sanders months ago?

Biden is fighting a two-front war, needing to stop Bernie’s momentum on his left and Bloomberg’s momentum on his right. He’s done if he doesn’t win South Carolina, which votes 10 days from now. He’s going to hit Sanders hard for being too far left and unelectable and hit Bloomberg hard for trying to buy the nomination and deceitfully imply that he has Barack Obama’s support. An impressive performance might claw back some of those Democratic voters in the middle who’ve peeled away from him lately in favor of Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar. A less than impressive performance might finish him off.

The same goes for Bloomberg, who for the first time in the race will face an environment tonight that hasn’t been paid for and scripted by his own campaign. He’s going to be ripped for anything and everything — his unprecedented ad spending and unsubtle payoffs to Democratic influencers; his arrogant call for the competition to clear the field for him; his workplace sexism; his long support for stop-and-frisk; his Republican pedigree and chumminess with Trump; and much, much more. The competition’s collective arsenal will be emptied. Which, in a way, is good for Bloomy: If he can parry those attacks and come out of this looking defiant and unflappable, he might see the same sort of upside as Klobuchar saw after the New Hampshire debate. Surely some Democratic voters are in wait-and-see mode with him right now. If they like what they see tonight it may shake loose a new wave of support for him in polling. That may be the only way this primary turns into a real race, in fact.

And if they don’t like what they see, whether because Bloomberg has no answer to the attacks or because he’s a bit too true to his dickish nature onstage? Well.

If I were Bloomy, I’d limit my attacks to the greatest extent possible to Trump and Bernie Sanders. Ripping on Trump while he’s being dinged by his rivals will show voters that he’s above the petty intraparty fray and keeping his eyes on the prize. But he’ll have to take some shots at Bernie, who’s likely to win in Nevada and might parlay that into an upset in South Carolina. Sanders has to be brought back to the pack before Super Tuesday. And if Bloomberg’s the centrist who lands the hardest shots on him, it may cement the perception that this is a Bernie/Bloomy two-man race — exactly the point Team Mike was trying to make in its memo this morning.

As for Bernie, I think he’ll keep his head down and say as little as possible, believing that if it ain’t broke there’s no need to fix it. If the rest of the field wants to kill each other, great. It only makes his life easier. But Bloomberg will swing at him even if no one else onstage will, so prepare for him to inveigh against plutocracy. In fact, he’ll probably do that even if Bloomy doesn’t attack him since he won’t want to risk Warren stealing all the progressive thunder onstage. Slate poses an interesting question, though: Now that Sanders is the frontrunner, might we see him tweak his message a bit in anticipation of having to sell it to centrist suburbanites as his party’s presidential nominee?

I’m thinking … no. Bernie is Bernie. There’ll be no traditional pivot towards the center if he’s nominated (although it sure will be interesting to see if any of his old skepticism towards open borders reemerges in swing states). He’s the ultimate WYSIWYG candidate.

The debate starts at 9 p.m. ET and will air on NBC. While we wait, here’s Amy Klobuchar doing her cringy best as a middle-aged Minnesotan to relate to Nevada’s Latino voters. Oh, and if you have time, digest this thoughtful argument by center-righty Ross Douthat that center-lefty Mike Bloomberg would be an especially terrible politician with whom to entrust the presidency. Douthat doesn’t go as far as to say that Bernie would be preferable but there’s a small-D democratic case that he would be. Especially if President Sanders is held in check by a solidly Republican Senate majority.