WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump called Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg a "mass of dead energy" and "a loser" on Thursday in a series of rancorous, personal tweets.
The former New York mayor then did something few Democratic presidential candidates have been willing to, so far: Respond in kind.
In a tweet quoting Trump's insult, Bloomberg called the president a "carnival barking clown."
The back-and-forth barbs represent an escalation of what is already a deeply personal clash between Bloomberg and Trump, two New York billionaires who for decades belonged to elite Manhattan social circles.
Bloomberg has yet to appear on a single presidential primary ballot, but his massive ad spending, growing online meme operation, rising poll numbers and personal biography appear to be making him an especially worrisome opponent to Trump. The president has tweeted more about Bloomberg in recent weeks than about any other Democratic candidate.
Since Tuesday, Trump has tweeted insults about Bloomberg at least five times, mocking his golf game, his height, and his debating skills. (Bloomberg is 5' 8," and Trump is 6'3".)
During the same period, Trump has barely mentioned any of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination. Instead he has focused his tweets on his recent impeachment and on the prison sentence prosecutors recommended for his longtime friend and political advisor, Roger Stone, who was convicted late last year of seven felonies in connection with his activities during the 2016 presidential race.
But as Trump increasingly shifts his energy toward his reelection campaign, the prospect of running against Bloomberg is clearly preoccupying the president. Bloomberg is willing and able to fight Trump on the same battlefields where Trump has always outdone his opponents: Net worth, mudslinging, attention-getting attacks and unbridled competitiveness.
On both the campaign trail and in private, Trump touts his personal wealth as evidence of his superior intelligence and his business acumen. He also revels in his ability to fire off personal insults at his opponents, insults he then uses to animate his supporters at massive rallies. Trump also prides himself on his willingness to attack his opponents more viciously, and often effectively, than they attack him.
In Bloomberg, however, Trump faces a direct challenge to core principles that underpin his entire political career, including his use of personal wealth as a measuring stick for power and importance, as well as his insistence that success in the private sector correlates directly to success in the White House.
Bloomberg's net worth of just over $60 billion dwarfs Trump's, which Forbes estimates at $3.1 billion. It even dwarfs Trump's most exaggerated claims about his wealth, which typically top out at $10 billion. No other presidential candidate in modern times has had more money than Bloomberg does.
And not only is Bloomberg willing to pour his own fortune into defeating Trump, he's also in a unique position to turn Trump's implied argument, that the richest person in the room is the best person, against him.
On Thursday, Bloomberg responded further to Trump during a campaign stop in North Carolina.
"We all know that Donald Trump is a bully," Bloomberg told attendees. "But he's from New York and I'm from New York, and I know how to deal with New York bullies."
Bloomberg added: "Somebody said, 'You know that he's tall,' and he calls me little Mike. And the answer is, 'Donald, where I come from, we measure your height from your neck up.'"
Even referring to Trump by his first name is a not-so-subtle reminder that Bloomberg has known Trump personally for decades.
It's a safe bet that Trump's attacks on Bloomberg will only escalate if Bloomberg continues to rise in the polls. A new Morning Consult survey released Thursday showed Bloomberg winning 17% of Democratic primary voters nationwide, only a point behind onetime front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a self-described democratic socialist, is at the top of the poll.
Bloomberg's strong showing comes even as the former mayor skips the first four states of the 2020 primary race and focuses instead on winning over voters in the states holding primaries on Super Tuesday, March 3, and beyond.
Recent surveys show Bloomberg polling at No. 1 in Arkansas, which has its primary on Super Tuesday, and surpassing rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in Florida, which goes to the polls March 17.