MARSHALLTOWN, IOWA — The uneasy peace between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders appeared to crack this weekend in the icy air of Iowa.
After months of avoiding direct conflict in the leftmost lane of the Democratic presidential primary, the two senators traded blows after Politico reported that Sanders’ volunteers have been directed to dissuade Warren voters from supporting her by suggesting she attracts primarily “affluent” voters and can’t bring new people into the party.
Warren shot back at her fellow progressive Sunday morning after a packed town hall here, telling reporters she is “disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me.”
“Bernie knows me and he’s known me for a long time,” Warren said. “Democrats want to win in 2020. We all saw the impact of the factionalism in 2016. And we can’t have a repeat of that.”
Then Warren aimed a dig of her own back at Sanders, suggesting he does not work hard enough to appeal to a broad swath of Democrats, and offered herself up as a better alternative to do so. “We cannot nominate someone who takes big chunks of the Democratic coalition for granted,” she said. “We need someone who would bring our party together.”
Politico reported Saturday that Sanders’ volunteers were given a script that told them to mention to Warren supporters that “people who support her are highly-educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what” and that “she’s bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.” Volunteers were also directed to mention concerns about former vice president Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg as well, but the aggression toward Warren is more notable due to the progressive pair’s de facto agreement to avoid attacks on each other.
Sanders sought to de-escalate the situation by taking the rare step, for him, of answering reporters’ questions after a climate rally he held in Iowa City on Sunday afternoon. He did not dispute the authenticity of the script but seemed to downplay its significance in a large campaign.
“No one is gonna trash Elizabeth Warren,” Sanders said, calling her his “very good” friend. “We have hundreds of employees. Elizabeth Warren has hundreds of employees. People sometimes say things that they shouldn’t.”
Despite the candidates’ insistence they are friendly, the tone among some of their aides and endorsers has sharpened as the Iowa Caucus looms just three weeks away. The most recent Des Moines Register poll of the state showed Sanders with a slight lead, with Warren on his heels followed by Biden and Buttigieg.
Julian Castro, the former Obama administration official who endorsed Warren after dropping out of the race, introduced her at her Marshalltown event on Sunday with a rebuke of both Biden’s and Sanders’ likeability among Democrats.
“People like Elizabeth Warren,” Castro said. “When you look at Democrats, about 25 percent of folks say they’d be unhappy if Vice President Biden was the nominee. About 25 percent say they’d be unhappy if Senator Sanders was the nominee. The person who scores the best on that, that they are good with … is Elizabeth Warren.”
Several Sanders’ aides hit back on Castro’s assertion on Twitter, noting that Sanders’ overall favorability rating is high and questioning his assumption.
“Nominating the candidate who people don’t feel so strongly about one way or the other is not how you beat a man as galvanizing as Trump,” wrote Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’ national press secretary.
And some of Sanders’ hardcore supporters at his event on Sunday offered up little enthusiasm for Warren’s unity pitch.
“You say unity candidate, I’m wondering if that’s a compromise candidate,” said Nicole McManus, a medical student who left Sanders’ climate rally with a hat, t-shirt, two signs and two bumper stickers emblazoned with his name. McManus said she might vote for Warren if she had to, but not “enthusiastically.”
Several voters who came to see Warren speak at a small elementary school gym Sunday reacted negatively to the news that the Sanders campaign was instructing its volunteers to dissuade Warren voters.
“That’s tacky,” said Kelli Johnson, a 63-year-old pharmacist who’s undecided in the race but leaning toward Warren. “I don’t like negative campaigning in any way.”
“I would really hate that,” said Barbara Wells, a social worker from Des Moines who’s undecided among the Democrats running for the nomination.
Some of the supporters who turned out to see Sanders in Iowa City said they were aghast to hear about the script, and expressed doubt that it was real.
“It doesn’t sound like Bernie, that’s all I can tell you,” said Jane Kinney, 70, who said she had been wavering between Sanders and Warren, until deciding to vote for Sanders in recent days. She suggested she did not want his volunteers to be denigrating another campaign.
David Schaffer, 63, a massage technician from Fairfield, said any tension between Sanders and Warren was a distraction from the real problem: Buttigieg who has run television ads criticizing Medicare for All.
“I’m more concerned about Buttigieg. I look at him as a plant,” Schaffer said. “He’s undermining Bernie’s single-payer health care.”