De Blasio Impresses in Debate, Then Stumbles by Quoting Che Guevara in Miami – The New York Times

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MIAMI — Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York began the day at the high point of his presidential campaign, glowing in the aftermath of a debate performance that flashed the political skills that helped make him the mayor of America’s biggest city.

“A street fighter! A street fighter!” the MSNBC host, Joe Scarborough, greeted him in an early morning appearance.

But by evening, Mr. de Blasio was backtracking and apologizing for quoting Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary who is persona non grata in much of South Florida, in a Thursday appearance with striking Miami airport workers.

“Hasta la victoria siempre!” Mr. de Blasio had said, a saying made famous by Guevara, former President Fidel Castro’s right-hand man during the Cuban revolution in the 1950s. The communist regime led hundreds of thousands of Cubans to flee, many of them settling in South Florida.

That remark sparked swift backlash in South Florida; at least two state senators immediately criticized Mr. de Blasio. By evening, the remark was running as a banner atop the Miami Herald’s website.

“This is completely unacceptable! How can anyone wanting to be the leader of the free world quote a murderous guerrilla — in Miami, no less!” Senator Annette Taddeo, who attended the rally, wrote on Twitter. She ended her post with the hashtag, #DeleteYourCampaign.

In his apology, Mr. de Blasio said he did not know the phrase’s origin.

That apparent flub was more in line with the uncommon skepticism that has greeted his candidacy. Polls have shown high unfavorability ratings among Democrats in New York and beyond, confounding even some political strategists as to why voters in far-flung states like Iowa and New Hampshire have formed such negative opinions about him.

He is, so far, running a threadbare campaign, with a limited staff and an operation that mostly consists of him flying to early states and attending events with his wife, Chirlane McCray. Unlike most rivals, Mr. de Blasio has declined to disclose how much money he has raised so far, or to reveal the number of donors supporting him.

But his performance on Wednesday was a reminder that there are real political instincts required to rise to the mayoralty of a big city, especially one like New York, where politics can resemble a blood sport.

Mr. de Blasio displayed some of the sharp political skills and personal story lines that he used in 2013 to illuminate his first run for mayor.

He spoke of raising his black son, and of the ills of income inequality. He was the first of the 10 candidates on Wednesday’s stage to interrupt an opponent, delivering a forceful articulation of progressivism.

He spoke less than most, capturing only 5 minutes and 54 seconds of the two-hour debate, ahead of only Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington. But Mr. de Blasio made the most of his moments, before what was likely the largest audience of his career.

“I think that people are underestimating his abilities,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who has been critical of Mr. de Blasio’s performance as mayor. “He may be lousy at governance and lousy at popularity, but he sure is a great campaigner and he’s terrific on the stage.”

As the mayor stood backstage just before the debate began, he said he began to realize the enormity of the event. “As they lined us up and we were actually going into the light, I had this sort of flashback to the scene from ‘Gladiator,’” Mr. de Blasio said, recalling how the combatants enter the Colosseum in Rome. “That sense of just the immenseness of the moment.”

The night unspooled to Mr. de Blasio’s advantage from the framing of the first question he received — on income inequality, the driving force of his political career.

Later, he was one of only two candidates, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren, to raise a hand in favor of abolishing the private health insurance industry. And when former Representative Beto O’Rourke defended having private insurers, Mr. de Blasio pounced from the left.

“Wait, wait, wait,” he said. “Congressman O’Rourke, private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans.”

Mr. de Blasio also highlighted his multiracial family — his wife, who is African-American, accompanied him to Miami.

“I also want to say there’s something that sets me apart from all my colleagues running in this race,” Mr. de Blasio said, “and that is, for the last 21 years, I have been raising a black son in America.”

The fact that Senator Cory Booker, who is African-American, stood a few feet away went unmentioned, perhaps because while Mr. de Blasio saw an edge to engaging his rivals, none of his competitors saw any advantage to sparring with a candidate who remains at the margins of the contest.

Of Mr. Booker’s presence, Mr. de Blasio said on Thursday, “I respect that. I was speaking as a parent. I was speaking as someone who had to keep his son safe in a world that is still held back by our history.”

Mr. de Blasio’s campaign strategy appears to place great emphasis, at least for now, on South Carolina, the third state where voters will weigh in next spring, after Iowa and New Hampshire. Mr. de Blasio said he believed that, because of his biracial family, he may have an ability to connect better with the black voters who make up a large portion of the state’s electorate.

“Last night, millions of folks got to see who I was for the first time,” Mr. de Blasio said in an interview on Thursday. “And I think a lot of them will like what they see.”

But Mr. de Blasio ended his day back at the debate site, on CNN, apologizing for saying, “Hasta la victoria siempre!” — which translates to “Ever on to victory!” He called it an “honest mistake.”

“I literally meant it as the Spanish phrase that these folks are going to be victorious,” he said, adding, “I’ve learned from that mistake.”

Shane Goldmacher reported from Miami, and William Neuman from New York.