For 43 minutes, the six Democratic presidential candidates repeated an array of familiar positions on Iran, North Korea and trade.
But then, panelist Abby Phillip of CNN raised the spat her network revealed Monday, that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders told Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a 2018 meeting “he did not believe a woman could win” the presidency in 2020.
It produced an exchange that, more than anything else in Tuesday night’s seventh Democratic debate, could affect the presidential race by exacerbating animosity between the contest’s two leading progressive hopefuls.
Indeed, not only did the subject spur a lively eight-minute discussion, but it appeared to provoke a less than friendly post-debate exchange between the two New England senators.
The debate was the last before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses and came at a time polls show a tight four-way contest among Sanders, Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“Why did you say that?” Phillips asked Sen. Sanders, citing the CNN report.
“As a matter of fact, I didn’t say it,” Sanders replied, repeating his denials since CNN’s M.J. Lee first reported the alleged exchange, citing four anonymous sources including two with whom she said Warren spoke immediately afterwards.
“How could anyone in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States?” he asked.
Warren rejected Sanders’ denial but declared “I’m not here to fight with Bernie,” seeking instead to make a positive case for the electability of female candidates.
“Look at the men on this stage,” she said. “Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on the stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women, Amy and me.”
“So true,” replied Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, touting her own undefeated electoral record. “I have won every race, every place, every time.”
Though Sanders reiterated that, “Of course, a woman can win,” he sought to switch the focus to what he called “the real question,” and the one that has preoccupied Democrats since 2016: “How do we beat (President Donald) Trump?”
“The only way we beat Trump is by a campaign of energy and excitement,” Sanders said, repeating his contention he could expand the electorate. “The real issue is who can bring the whole party together,” Biden countered, contending he had “the broadest coalition of anyone in this race.”
From there, the two-hour encounter co-sponsored by CNN and The Des Moines Register proceeded through an array of domestic issues in which the candidates primarily repeated past positions.
But in the generally genial post-debate handshaking, Warren appeared to spurn Sanders’ outreach, and they engaged in some words, out of microphone range. “This is not warm and cuddly,” CNN analyst David Axelrod observed.
The optics suggested hard feelings from the Sanders-Warren spat could persist. And that could help one of their more moderate rivals, like Biden or Buttigieg, while the two are largely sidelined from active campaigning when the Senate starts Trump’s impeachment trial next week.
If neither wins the Iowa caucuses, and the New Hampshire primary eight days later, analysts may liken this to the bitter verbal war that sank two top Democratic presidential hopefuls 16 years ago.
At that time, the combatants were the two candidates who were leading the Iowa race, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt. While they vied, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry surged past them to win the caucuses and, ultimately, the Democratic nomination.
It was a reminder that Iowa Democrats don’t like negative campaigning, something that’s especially true in a year when the party’s principal focus is — and should be — on beating Trump.
In a sense, a Sanders-Warren split may have been inevitable as the two jockeyed for liberal support in a close race that has lately seen the Massachusetts senator drop behind her Vermont rival in both Iowa and New Hampshire, whose outcome could elevate one’s chances at the expense of the other.
Warren may have had more on her mind besides the CNN report, which followed a Politico report that the Sanders’ campaign was using hardball tactics against several opponents.
The article reported that Sanders operatives were using talking points when confronted with potential Warren voters that included a suggestion of elitism, claiming her supporters are “highly educated, more affluent people” and that “she’s bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.”
The report also said potential Buttigieg reporters were bring told the 37-year-old former mayor lacked support among African Americans and Biden backers were being told “no one is really excited about him.”
Biden has also been a target of some explicit Sanders hardball. In an op-ed last weekend in South Carolina’s The (Columbia) State, a top black Sanders supporter, former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, charged Biden “has repeatedly betrayed black voters to side with Republican lawmakers and undermine our progress.” Polls show Biden with strong black support there.
But the first round will come in Iowa. There, we’ll find out if Sanders and Warren are the Dean and Gephardt of 2020.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: email@example.com.