LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Mike Bloomberg is running for president, but he's not on the ballot until next month. The former mayor of New York is skipping the contest in February, looking to make a run at the Democratic nomination when the voting expands nationwide in March. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has been traveling with Bloomberg this week as he's courted voters and addressed some tough controversies. Hi, Don.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hi, there.
FADEL: So tell us where you've been this week with Bloomberg and what's the strategy behind where he's spending his time.
GONYEA: OK. Here's the list - Tennessee, Chattanooga and Nashville; North Carolina, Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Raleigh; then Texas, two events, both of them in Houston, both of them big. Three of the 14 states that will vote on March 3, Super Tuesday. And his goal is to make a big splash that day, firmly establish himself as a contender, a top-tier contender but also to start building a relationship with voters, nationally.
And as for the things he's been addressing - one of the things that is key about this is he's running against Donald Trump already. He's not running against all the other Democrats in the field. And as part of that, he is challenging Trump directly. And Trump has noticed already. Trump tweeted at him. Trump insulted him. Trump insulted his height. Bloomberg tweeted right back, calling Trump a carnival barking clown. And then he talked about it at his rallies. This one's in Raleigh.
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MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Look. We all know Trump is a bully, but I know how to deal with bullies. I come from New York just like him. And I'm not afraid of Donald Trump. And he knows it, and that's why he keeps tweeting about me. Thank you, Donald. Keep sending it in. I love it.
FADEL: OK. So we're hearing a really supportive rally there. But Bloomberg's been confronted over comments about law enforcement practices, lending practices that disadvantage black Americans. Aside from the issues of fairness and justice, African American voters are critical in democratic politics. So how has he handled this?
GONYEA: It's interesting. He addresses it without explaining it. He doesn't take us inside his head on what he was thinking with that 2015 speech and the tape that emerged this week, where he seems to be speaking, positively, about racial profiling and about sending police into minority neighborhoods. But, publicly, he has apologized, you know, broadly, for being a supporter of stop-and-frisk so long.
But here's the other thing he's doing. He talks about everything he did as mayor and everything he's done as a philanthropist for the African American community, working on schools, working on, you know, housing and lending and things like that. And he has been rolling out the endorsements from Congressional Black Caucus members and from prominent big-city mayors. And one of them is Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. He spoke at a big event for African Americans in Houston this week. He said he has heard what he needed from Michael Bloomberg on these issues. And then listen to what else he said.
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SYLVESTER TURNER: Now, I didn't find a perfect person, but I found someone who I believe, if we stand together, can unite a divided country and take us where we need to be.
FADEL: So it feels like wherever I look, there's Bloomberg - TV commercials, Internet memes, a lot of stuff where we don't hear directly from him. What's he like in person, with voters? How do they respond to him?
GONYEA: You know, he's kind of low-key on the stump. He's not particularly a natural. And you watch him work the rope line and shake hands. It's pretty quick, and it feels pretty cursory. But voters are turning out. These events are crowded, and they are clearly looking for something, even if they're still undecided. Listen to this guy I met in Winston-Salem, N.C. His name is Michael Day (ph).
MICHAEL DAY: I love Amy Klobuchar. I love Mayor Pete. But I don't think either can beat President Trump.
GONYEA: So they just want to win. And this guy was holding a sign that basically says - how do you beat a corrupt New York businessman? You beat him with an honest New York businessman. So that's kind of the tone for a lot of people.
FADEL: Back to that idea of electability. NPR's Don Gonyea, thank you so much.
GONYEA: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.