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The final Democratic presidential debate before the pivotal Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses erupted Tuesday night, as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren sparred over the disputed reports that Sanders had privately told Warren in December 2018 that a woman could not realistically become president.
“Well as a matter of fact I didn’t say it,” Sanders insisted, after one of the CNN debate’s moderators asserted the conversation had occurred.
“That is correct,” he said later, when asked whether he was unequivocally denying that the conversation took place.
Bizarrely, a debate moderator then immediately and matter-of-factly asked Warren, “What did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”
That prompted laughter in the debate hall at Drake University in Des Moines, and a bewildered chuckle from Sanders. Some commentators have suggested the CNN report of Warren and Sanders’ alleged 2018 conversation, which cited sources who were not present for Sanders’ alleged remarks, was a leak from the Warren campaign intended to blunt Sanders’ surge in recent polls.
— Washington Examiner (@dcexaminer) January 15, 2020
Sanders reiterated that he would do “everything in my power” to help a woman candidate win the presidency, if she secured the Democratic nomination. Warren, in turn, outwardly sought to deescalate the situation, but went on to argue that the issue raised larger questions and again claimed Sanders had made the remark.
“Bernie is my friend and I’m not here to try to fight with Bernie,” Warren began, before saying it was important to take the issue of sexism “head-on.”
“Can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage,” Warren said to applause. “Collectively, they have lost ten elections. The only people on stage who have won every single election they’ve been in are the women. Amy and me. And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me. And here’s what I know — the real danger that we face as Democrats is picking a candidate who can’t pick our party together.”
At the end of the debate, Bernie Sanders reached out to shake hands with Elizabeth Warren and Warren just rejected it.
— Steve Guest (@SteveGuest) January 15, 2020
Sanders quickly challenged Warren’s assertion, noting that he won an election against a GOP incumbent in November 1990, when he unseated then-Rep. Peter P. Smith.
“And I said I was the only one who has beat an incumbent Republican in 30 years,” Warren shot back — even though Sanders’ win was, in fact, within the past 30 years.
Elizabeth Warren points out that the male candidates onstage have collectively lost 10 elections while the women — her and Amy Klobuchar — are undefeated. She also adds that she’s the only candidate to defeat a Republican incumbent in 30 years. #DemDebate pic.twitter.com/Z4m7aUeCnW
— Adam Best (@adamcbest) January 15, 2020
The brouhaha smashed the more than yearlong non-aggression pact between the two candidates, and was just one of several flashpoints between the two that emerged during the debate. As the event concluded, Warren appeared to ignore Sanders’ invitation for a handshake.
Sanders had a different foil early on, as he challenged former Vice President Joe Biden’s initial support for the Iraq war, which he called “the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of this country.”
Warren camp wants us to believe that Sanders told her — a campaign rival — something that is not only sexist but that would harm him/help her if disclosed. Also want us to ignore that alleged comment wasn't disclosed until Sanders started surging. Insulting on so many levels.
— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) January 14, 2020
“Joe and I listened to what Dick Cheney and George Bush and [Donald] Rumsfeld had to say,” Sanders said. “I thought they were lying. I didn’t believe them for a moment. I took to the floor. I did everything I could to prevent that war. Joe saw it differently.”
Biden acknowledged that his 2002 vote to authorize the war was a “mistake” but emphasized that former President Barack Obama still felt that he had the foreign policy credentials to serve as vice president.
“I think my record overall, on every other thing we’ve done, I’m prepared to compare it to anybody on the stage,” Biden said. He later said he would not meet with North Korea’s leaders without preconditions, accusing the Trump administration of being used by the dictatorship there as it seeks “legitimacy.”
— jordan (@JordanUhl) January 15, 2020
After the exchange, Sanders’ team tweeted out a video from summer 2003 showing Biden’s previous support for the Iraq War. (“Some in my own party have said that it was a mistake to go in to Iraq in the first place and believe that it’s not worth the cost,” Biden said in the video. “But the cost of not acting against Saddam I think would have been much greater.”)
Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who served in the war in Afghanistan, added: “The next president is going to be confronted with national security challenges different in scope and kind than any we have seen before. … For me, those lessons of the past are personal.”
Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar later said they would ensure that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon, but emphasized that joint action among allies would be necessary.
The party’s top six contenders were squaring off amid a pending Senate impeachment trial as well as the white-hot tensions between Warren and Sanders.
The war in Iraq turned out to be the worst foreign policy blunder our country has ever made.
I voted against that war. I did everything I could to prevent that war.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 15, 2020
The showdown took place as the latest polls indicate a very close contest among former Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg both in Iowa and New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary in the White House race just eight days after Iowa’s caucuses.
Surveys in both states show plenty of voters remain undecided or willing to change their minds on whom they’re supporting.
“All the polling data that I’ve read and seen is … it’s a toss-up,” Biden told campaign volunteers at a Des Moines field office on the eve of the debate.