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Aboard Bloomberg bus: Droll wit, swag, Texas-size ambition

DALLAS, TX – Mike Bloomberg isn't going to be the loudest campaigner in the Democratic primary contest, and he's not planning to spend time talking about his rivals. With the first votes just weeks away, he acts more like he's running in a general election than a primary.

While the top Democratic candidates campaigned in Iowa and Nevada this weekend, Bloomberg was on a five-stop bus tour Saturday of reliably Republican Texas, which doesn't vote until March 3. The only rival he spoke about was President Donald Trump, and he talked about Texas as a battleground in November rather than a soon-to-be-voting primary state.

The Texas tour was an early touch-the-flesh foray for Bloomberg, who is trying to reach voters with hundreds of millions of dollars in television and digital advertising as he tries to rewrite the playbook of running for president. While other candidates have sought to prove themselves in the quaint retail politics of traditional starting states, Bloomberg's approach is decidedly wholesale, with a focus on large states with far more delegates at stake.

As for his fellow Democrats, Bloomberg said he welcomes any criticism they want to throw his way. He didn't mention anyone by name, but Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in particular have hit him for being a billionaire — he has an estimated worth of more than $50 billion — who can self-fund his campaign with essentially an unlimited budget.

“Why are they giving me free publicity?” Bloomberg said in an Associated Press interview on his campaign bus. “They're making the public think that I'm a real candidate, that they're really worried about it and I'm a real threat. And the public says, ‘Oh, if he’s that good, maybe we should think about him, too.' Thank you very much."

That droll demeanor is not the stuff of the Iowa State Fair soapbox, but few things about Bloomberg's campaign are typical. He entered the race in late November, months after saying he wouldn't run. He figured it was too late to mount serious campaigns in the first four voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — so he's skipping them entirely to focus on the 14 states that vote on Super Tuesday, including delegate-rich Texas and California, when about a third of Democratic delegates will be awarded.

The former mayor of New York, whose fortune flows from his financial data and media company, is not accepting campaign contributions, which means he can't participate in the Democratic debates. He is not holding town-hall style events where voters can ask him questions or hosting large rallies with thousands of adoring fans, as some of his rivals have been doing for months.

“I'm not Bernie Sanders ... or Elizabeth Warren and yelling and screaming with 25,000 people in front of me. I'm just not comfortable doing that, that's not my strength," Bloomberg told the AP, adding that he would do so as the campaign goes on. “Today was a decent-sized crowd. I can look, and I can see the people, and I can relate to them. Do I connect with them? Well, that's what you're going to find out when the primary hits.”

Bloomberg and his campaign bus drew plenty of buzz and voters eager to take selfies mobbed him. At his first stop of the day, a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio, he appeared almost on auto-pilot, moving through the crowd quickly. But as the day went on, he appeared to grow more comfortable, engaging more with voters, who were several hundred in number and racially diverse.

Some said they were committed Democrats. A group of women in their 70s at the Dallas event said they had seen Bloomberg's ads on television and wanted to learn more about him. In San Antonio, Kyle Gish, 60, who said he leans “center-right,” said Bloomberg is the only candidate he's considering in the Democratic field.

Gemma Kleinsmith, a 55-year-old technical writer who was with Gish, said she leans Democratic but is conservative on fiscal issues. She thinks Bloomberg would be a stable force in the White House.

“He's super smart, he's a proven businessman, he's moderate in my eyes,” she said. “He's everything that Trump is not.”

While Bloomberg isn't offering specific criticism of other Democrats, he's said he entered the race because he didn't believe anyone had the ability to beat Trump, a fellow New Yorker.

Judy Sheindlin, TV's “Judge Judy,” who has endorsed Bloomberg, offered a more direct criticism of Sanders as she joined Bloomberg in Texas.

“America needs a little tweaking, but America does not need a revolution,” she said.

Bloomberg's blitz through Texas — aboard the “Get It Done Express” — went from San Antonio to Dallas, along the Interstate 35 corridor where Democrats have been making gains. He stopped in between in San Marcos, Austin and Waco.

His speeches were short on personal details, and instead focused on his record as mayor of New York and the money he's invested in fighting climate change and expanding gun control, two key issues for Democratic voters.

The campaign's ample resources were also on display. Aides handed out T-shirts and tote bags reading “I like Mike.” The bags also had an unofficial Bloomberg campaign slogan: “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” Bloomberg peppered his speech with statistics meant to show his record: How much New York's crime rates fell during his tenure, and how much high school graduation rates went up.

As the 77-year old Bloomberg shook hands in San Antonio, one voter was able to hold his attention for more than 30 seconds, gripping his arm and telling him that his slogan mirrored Dwight Eisenhower's "I Like Ike" campaign of the 1950s.

"We're probably the only two that remember," Bloomberg said.

In Dallas, at the last event of the day, he approached voter Dennis Tenley after noticing his Johns Hopkins University sweatshirt, Bloomberg's alma mater. Tenley told Bloomberg they'd been freshman classmates, and they briefly discussed a shared professor.

In San Marcos, Bloomberg and Sheindlin ordered lunch at a local barbecue joint — about a pound of brisket, coleslaw and baked beans. Bloomberg pulled two $20 bills out of his wallet to pay the cashier.

Bloomberg takes the criticism of his wealth head-on in his speeches, telling voters he's not beholden to any special interests.

It's a message that resonated with several people.

"He's not running for the money. That actually gives me confidence," said CJ Zhao, an Austin voter who works for a nonprofit that helps Asian and Pacific Islander candidates participate in politics.

The Texas blitz was the kick-off of a nationwide organizing day in 27 states meant to flex his campaign's strength. Bloomberg has said he plans to keep campaign offices open in several key battleground states all the way through November to help defeat Trump even if Bloomberg doesn't become the Democratic nominee.

The day after the Get It Done Express came to Dallas, voters enjoying a local dog park on Sunday morning offered mixed opinions of the former mayor. Among a group of four in their 20s, only one had even heard of Bloomberg. Across the park, 27-year-old Aaron Krage said he knew of Bloomberg's background as a businessman and mayor and that he wasn't taking campaign donations. Krage, who plans to vote for Pete Buttigieg, said he doesn't think Bloomberg is effectively communicating his message through his TV ads in Texas.

But Danny Jerina and Staci Lee, both in their 40s, said they think Bloomberg is exactly the type of candidate appeals to fiscally conservative and socially liberal voters like them and their friends.

“He's got kind of a nice mix of business experience as well as political experience,” Jerina said. “If we're lucky it might be able to persuade some of the Republicans on the fence.”

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This story has been updated to correctly spell a last name as Kleinsmith, not Kleinsworth.