CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Consider it progress for a presidential candidate on a steep learning curve: Michael R. Bloomberg now thanks his hecklers.
That is not how he has always handled unwanted interruptions on the campaign trail. In Nashville in December, for instance, Mr. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, took the bait when environmental activists started shouting at him. “I’m doing more on the climate than you’ve even dreamed of,” he snapped, according to CBS News. “I’ve put a fortune into this thing.”
But on a return trip to Tennessee last month, when a man in Chattanooga started bellowing “Bernie! Bernie!” in the middle of Mr. Bloomberg’s speech, the candidate had all the graciousness of a maître d’ tending to a displeased patron.
“Thank you for coming,” he said, smiling and continuing on with his remarks. Later, in Memphis, Houston, and just about anywhere else a protester yelled out mid-speech — there is almost always one — Mr. Bloomberg delivered the same reply, “Thank you for making me feel like I’m at home in New York.”
Mr. Bloomberg’s bid for the presidency, which faces its first test before voters on Tuesday when 14 states go to the polls, has exposed to the country what New Yorkers have long known: He was never admired for his gifts as a retail politician.
Now as he tries to connect with Americans who know little about him, other than what they see in his ubiquitous, slickly produced ads, his campaign is trying to buff the rough exterior of a 77-year-old who can be surly, inelegant and averse to talking about himself in a way that voters find revealing and personal.
His aides have warned him about rolling his eyes in public, especially during presidential debates. Though they initially said no to appearances on cable news town-hall-style programs, some advisers acknowledged that Mr. Bloomberg could have benefited from the practice, if only they had agreed to do them before last week. They have shown him television clips of surrogates who have defended the most damaging moments from Mr. Bloomberg’s past, like his defense of racially biased policing practices, more persuasively than he has.
And when he is faced with questions about his wealth, aides have pointed him toward polling that has shown voters respond favorably when they learn he did not inherit his money, but earned it himself.
In an interview, Mr. Bloomberg said he did not believe that voters would see this as an election where charisma is paramount, given how deeply many Americans feel that President Trump has led the country in the wrong direction.
As president, he said, “You have to have somebody that the public thinks, ‘Whether I like the guy or the woman or not, he is smart, well meaning and knows how to manage the process.’” As for the subject of his wealth, he said, “it’s tricky,” adding: “People in America fundamentally don’t want to take away what you have. They want to find a way so that they can get it as well.”
So his speeches include a line that hits directly at the self-made part of his biography, and a personal critique of the president’s signature legislative achievement, the 2017 tax cut, in which the benefits went disproportionately to wealthy people like Mr. Bloomberg.
“I didn’t need a tax cut, thank you very much,” he said last week in Oklahoma City.
Still, delivering a good line off a teleprompter — Mr. Bloomberg reads from one at almost every public event — means little if he cannot nail the moments when the script isn’t there. And then there are the times he mangles the script anyway, like telling the crowd in Greensboro, N.C, how nice it was to be in “Gainesboro.” Or how much he was looking forward to competing in “Super Bowl Tuesday.”
His audiences seem not to mind terribly much. In Greensboro, a few people in the crowd called out to correct him, but that was the end of it. “Very, very impressed,” said Jimmy Sipsis, 60, a property manager and self-described independent. “Based on his record, you look at it, and see he can stand up there and say, ‘I’ve done this, I’ve done that.’”
Once Mr. Bloomberg entered the race late last year, the campaign benefited from almost two months in which the candidate could hone his public speaking skills, rusty and sclerotic after a decade since his last run, without too much scrutiny. The attention of the political world was trained on Iowa and New Hampshire where Mr. Bloomberg did not compete, so hardly anyone noticed the gaffes like when he opened a campaign office in Denver in early February and joked about wishing someone else could have spoken for him so that he could spend the day at his home in Vail, Colo.
His campaign strategy was never to pretend to have a feel-your-pain magic touch. Instead, it has leaned hard into his experience running the nation’s largest city through trying times, like the recovery from the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Sandy, an approach his aides hope will help elevate him above his rivals given the events of the past week.
With a three-minute, direct-to-camera television ad that will air nationwide Sunday night and a sharpened stump speech highlighting his leadership as mayor, Mr. Bloomberg is hoping to draw a stark contrast with Mr. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus and the managerial records of some of his Democratic opponents.
At his first appearance in a televised debate last month, he was halting, flat and silent as his opponents pummeled him over his record as mayor, and allegations that he had spoken demeaningly of women. His second debate performance was more aggressive and confident, though he had moments when he flubbed what should have been easy comebacks. At one point, when defending his commitment to the Democratic Party by explaining how he had spent $100 million helping Democrats win the House of Representatives in 2018, he caught himself after almost saying he “bought” the majority that made Nancy Pelosi the speaker. “I got them,” he said, making the moment only slightly less awkward.
Those who attend his campaign events now hear a message that is tightly focused on his appeal as the “un-Trump,” a pitch that has been redrafted multiple times in the two months he has been campaigning full time. There is an element of high and low to the approach, in which Mr. Bloomberg boasts of policy achievements like fighting for stricter gun control legislation and closing coal-fired power plants (even when he’s in eastern Tennessee, the heart of coal country) in one paragraph and, in the next, goads the president.
Seeing little use for subtlety, Mr. Bloomberg and his advisers have taken an approach they hope will not just showcase his competence as a leader, but also expose some of Mr. Trump’s biggest insecurities
“It’s not all about Trump, but there are useful moments when we can invoke Trump, compare Mike to him and poke the bear,” said Tim O’Brien, a journalist who wrote a biography about Mr. Trump and is now working as one of Mr. Bloomberg’s senior advisers. “It’s so easy,” he added.
Needling Mr. Trump, who has taken the bait by responding with a flurry of angry Tweets about “Mini Mike,” is one thing Mr. Bloomberg needs little coaching to do.
The president so loathes the informality of “Donald” that he demanded that contestants on his reality show “The Apprentice” refer to him as “Mr. Trump,” yet Mr. Bloomberg repeatedly calls him by his first name.
In one regular line of Mr. Bloomberg’s that gets a guaranteed laugh, he says, “People ask me, ‘Do you really want a general election between two New York billionaires?’ To which I say, ‘Who’s the other one?’”
The contrast to Mr. Trump is at the core of Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign. He closes out his pitch to voters by making the differences, as he sees them, between the two 70-something New Yorkers clear.
“Even though Donald and I are both from New York, the truth is we could not be more different,” he said recently in Nashville. “He breaks promises, I keep them. He divides people, I unite them. He’s a climate change denier. I’m an engineer.”
“He looks out for people who inherited their wealth like him,” Mr. Bloomberg added, “and I’m self-made.”