During the final debate before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders doubled down on his denials that he told Sen. Elizabeth Warren that he did not think a woman could become president in 2020.
Ahead of Tuesday night’s two-hour debate in Des Moines, a rift between Sanders and his Massachusetts rival dominated the news cycle, including a back-and-forth between their respective campaigns over comments Sanders allegedly made to Warren during a private meeting surfaced in a CNN report.
Sanders was asked if he had told Warren he did not believe a woman could become president in 2020, and the Vermont senator responded that he had never said such a thing.
“Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it, and I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want,” Sanders said.
“Anybody who knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president to the United States,” he said.
After emphasizing again that he had never told Warren during a private December 2018 meeting that a woman could not win the upcoming election, Warren was asked what she thought when Sanders had told her this.
“I disagreed,” Warren said.
“Bernie is my friend and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. But look, this question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised and it’s time for us to attack it head on. And I think the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at people’s winning record,” she said.
“Look at the men on this stage. Collectively they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that 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,” Warren finished to cheers.
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This began the second part of the awkward exchange in which Sanders pointed out that he had beaten an incumbent Republican during his 1990 race.
“Thirty years ago,” Warren said. “And I said, ‘I was the only one who has beaten an incumbent Republican in 30 years.’”
“Well 30 years ago is 1990, as a matter of fact,” Sanders said before pivoting to say the main issue should be which candidate is best placed to beat President Donald Trump.
The subject of the Sanders-Warren meeting dominated political news coverage over the four days leading up to Tuesday’s debate after Politico first reported Saturday that the Sanders campaign was instructing volunteers canvassing to say the Massachusetts senator’s voting base is primarily white, affluent and well-educated.
Following Politico’s story, CNN reported Monday on the private meeting between Sanders and Warren in which the news network alleged the Vermont senator had told the Massachusetts senator that a woman could not win the presidency.
Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, quickly responded, calling the CNN report “a lie.”
“Everybody is coming at us right now, come at us that’s fine, but don’t spread lies about Bernie Sanders. We know who he is,” Shakir told CNN.
Sanders himself took issue with the characterization of his private conversation with Warren, saying in a statement to the press that his words had been distorted.
“It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win,” Sanders said.
“What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could,” he added.
Warren then chose to go on the record Monday evening with her account of the meeting two years ago.
“Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” Warren said in the statement.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backs Warren, released a statement Monday calling for a cease-fire between the two leading progressive candidates in the Democratic presidential primary.
“Going into the debate, Warren supporters should be talking about why her inspiring agenda and popularity across the party makes her best suited to unify and energize Democrats — and win swing voters to defeat Trump. That’s where our focus will be,” the statement read.
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“This was a private meeting. We wouldn’t talk about the details if we knew them,” the committee wrote.
Fellow Democratic candidate for president and entrepreneur Andrew Yang wrote on Twitter Tuesday that the back-and-forth between the two politicians was an unnecessary distraction from policy issues.
“Watching this Elizabeth-Bernie dynamic is upsetting,” Yang said. “We have big problems to solve and both want to solve them. I’m sure that’s where they would want our attention focused too.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, defended Sanders, saying she also met with the Vermont independent before launching her 2020 bid.
“In that meeting, he showed me the greatest respect and encouragement, just as he always has,” Gabbard wrote on Twitter.
Neither Sanders nor Warren seemed to want to make their spat the focus of attention ahead of the debate.
In the run-up to Tuesday evening, the Sanders campaign signaled it was more interested in going after Biden during the debate, sending emails to supporters attacking the former vice president for his record on the Iraq War and voting for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Warren’s team meanwhile was telling its supporters to back away from criticizing Sanders for sexism, according to BuzzFeed News. A Warren campaign official told fans and volunteers in a large group chat on Twitter Tuesday morning the plan was to deescalate the situation.
“I would be careful with the ‘sexism’ angle when it comes to the Bernie/Warren exchange individually — that’s not what this is about and I think it’ll be really bad news for us if that becomes what this is about (i.e. press asking her if she thinks Bernie is sexist),” the aide wrote.
“Is that what this is about broadly? Absolutely. But no one here is actually claiming Bernie himself is sexist (regardless of your own personal beliefs on that topic),” BuzzFeed News reported the staffer writing.
With the U.S. Senate poised to take up the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in the coming weeks, Sens. Sanders, Warren and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are expected to be mostly off the campaign trail for several weeks, adding pressure on the candidates to perform well in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses.
Sanders was well positioned before the debate and has enjoyed a surge in recent weeks. He leads the field in Iowa with 20%, according to the latest poll from the Des Moines Register, and placed second in a recent Boston Herald poll on the New Hampshire primary.
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