Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) - Michael Bloomberg is skipping Monday's Democratic caucuses in Iowa. But that doesn't mean his presence isn't worrying Democrats hellbent on winning here.
Bloomberg, by ignoring the first nominating contests, is attempting something that no nominee in nearly a half century has ever done successfully. But the former New York mayor is leveraging his massive personal wealth and ability to air endless positive ads about himself to operate in an entirely different universe from his Democratic opponents, one where he is almost exclusively running against President Donald Trump and is divorced from the day-to-day machinations of the Democratic primary.
While former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg court voters at town halls in Iowa and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont jockey for progressive support in neighboring New Hampshire, Bloomberg's team is building a campaign staff of more than 1,000 as the mayor visits 24 states.
Bloomberg also has spent more than $286 million on television, digital and radio ads -- including a $10 million spot focused on his work to combat gun violence that is slated to run Sunday during the Super Bowl. He's already picked up the endorsements of more than 30 of the nation's mayors, including on Thursday by Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, a high-profile black Democrat.
So far, the strategy has shown signs of working -- the endless positive ads have vaulted Bloomberg nationally to 10% in a recent Fox News poll and to 8% in a Quinnipiac survey, allowing him to pull even or slightly ahead of Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
And his Democratic opponents are starting to take notice of him and his money and to demand that Bloomberg -- once viewed as a long shot for the nomination -- take part in a debate.
Klobuchar said this week that it was time for the former mayor, instead of just spending money, to "be on the stage and be able to go back and forth so that voters can evaluate him." Progressive groups have made the same argument and are now publicly pushing the Democratic National Committee -- as Bloomberg rises in national polls -- to get him on the stage so his opponents can take him on.
All of this is welcome news in Bloomberg's headquarters.
"It is very intentional," Dan Kanninen, Bloomberg's states director, said of the former mayor's strategy to largely ignore the Democratic primary for now. "It's being like on a different plane, where we can simply have our opponent be the president in the battlegrounds that matter for the fall, which also happen to be battlegrounds on Super Tuesday and beyond."
Kanninen referred to the nominating process and the first four states as a "quirk of the system" that forces "more traditional candidates into that narrow box."
"The fact that we don't have to do that," he added, "is an advantage that we have."
Money can create momentum
Bloomberg's ad spending has been central to his strategy, and the attention those ads have created has afforded him the momentum that most candidates need to survive after the first nominating contests. The nearly $300 million he has spent on ads dwarfs what candidates like Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren have spent by a factor of 10, and Bloomberg is already on track to spend more than $100 million in the Super Tuesday states, which vote March 3, including a whopping $59 million in California and Texas.
Bloomberg's ads -- and that he has been unchallenged, for now, by other Democrats -- have also allowed him to both introduce himself to the country in a positive light, with most of his spots focused on key issues for Democratic voters and on his upbringing, and to take on Trump.
"He could've just been the middle-class kid who made good, but Mike Bloomberg became the guy who did good," a narrator says in one of his spots. "And now, he's taking on him," the ad continues, as images of Trump are displayed.
Bloomberg's strategy has its potential hazards.
Money can create momentum, but Bloomberg still faces the same dynamics that all other candidates do in the Democratic primary, especially regarding the need to win over a diverse mix of voters that represent the Democratic electorate.
Bloomberg disavowed his previous deep support for stringent policing laws such as stop and frisk, seen as a liability for him among African Americans, who make up a key Democratic constituency. But Democratic operatives eyeing a serious Bloomberg run see that past support as a clear area for opponents to attack the former mayor.
Bloomberg is looking to combat those questions with high-profile black validators like Bowser, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Steve Benjamin, and ads that feature black supporters, like his upcoming Super Bowl spot, which features a black woman whose son was shot and killed in 2013.
His entire plan could also be dashed if a consensus winner emerges from the first four contests, leading people close to the mayor to privately hope that multiple candidates win the primaries and caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, thereby limiting the amount of momentum each candidate has heading into March.
"What's undeniable is that Bloomberg is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to go from zero to a higher number in the polls, but how durable that is should be measured after Iowa and New Hampshire," said a top Democratic donor who is supporting another candidate.
Get him to the debate
The most concerning scenario for Democrats is the possibility that a bruising January and February could hurt candidates competing in the first four contests and allow a largely unscathed Bloomberg to step in once voting begins in March.
"I think that instead of just putting your money out there, he's actually got to be on the stage and be able to go back and forth so that voters can evaluate him," Klobuchar said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren in the Democratic primary, has asked the Democratic National Committee to change its debate criteria to ensure Bloomberg's inclusion if he climbs substantially in the polls. Politico first reported the group's lobbying efforts at the DNC.
Currently, candidates have two paths to qualify for the next debate February 7 in New Hampshire: Hit either fundraising and polling thresholds or win at least one pledged delegate out of the Iowa caucuses. Since Bloomberg isn't taking money from donors and is not competing in the Hawkeye State, he's unlikely to meet any of those criteria.
"It makes no logical sense for someone who is spending a quarter-billion dollars and buying himself numbers in the polls to avoid the scrutiny of being in the debate mix, especially someone who is as corporate as Michael Bloomberg is in an economic populist era," Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told CNN this week.
Green said there's a "real possibility" the DNC will agree to alter the debate rules before Super Tuesday.
"I wasn't laughed out of the room," he said. "I think they are committed to the principle that candidates who voters need to hear from should be on the debate stage."
DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said the national party has not set any debate criteria beyond the New Hampshire event and declined further comment.
Kanninen said Bloomberg is not shying away from the debates. "Mike Bloomberg is a pretty tough guy himself," Kanninen said, "and someone who has been mayor of New York ... for three terms and knows how to handle himself in the debate."
For now, though, the former mayor and his large team of operatives are happy to focus more on the President than people like Klobuchar, hoping that it forces voters to think about a general election matchup between Bloomberg and Trump.
This was clear earlier this month, when Trump, reportedly after seeing a Bloomberg ad on television, laid into his former mayor on Twitter, labeling him "Mini Mike Bloomberg."
Bloomberg responded -- "Obsessed Much," he asked -- a sign that he is enjoying getting into the President's head.
"It does validate the fact that what we're doing is working when the President is that nervous about us," said Kanninen. "He does this kind of stuff when he wants to put his thumb on the scale and pick his opponent. And clearly he does not want to get run against Michael Bloomberg."
This wouldn't be the first time Bloomberg has used his immense wealth to get into the heads of his opponents.
During his mayoral run in 2009, the mayor's team bought up all the available digital ad inventory in the neighborhood of his opponent, Anthony Weiner, according to former Bloomberg adviser Brad Tusk.
"Every time Anthony opened his computer, we wanted him to see us," Tusk wrote in his book. "Every time, he logged off, we wanted to be the last thing he saw."