DES MOINES — Standing a few feet away from her on the Democratic debate stage, Senator Bernie Sanders on Tuesday night strenuously denied he told Senator Elizabeth Warren a woman could not win the presidency, and she stuck by her claim that he had.
But rather than dwell on the particulars of a he-said-she-said dispute, Warren sought to parlay the very existence of the question into a galvanizing argument for her own electability as she and five other Democrats took the stage for their final clash before Iowans caucus in less than three weeks.
"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,” Warren said. “Can a woman beat Donald Trump? 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,” Warren said, referring to herself and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar before bringing up her 2012 Senate race against Scott Brown. “And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me.”
It was a memorable moment in a high-stakes debate that gave the six candidates a last chance to make their case on issues like the health care system and trade, which have cleaved their party for much of the year.
The debate unfolded against an extraordinary historic backdrop, with House Democrats expected to vote to send articles of impeachment against President Trump to the Senate on Wednesday, and it came days after Trump seemed to bring the nation to the brink of war with Iran.
The candidates on stage — Warren, Sanders, Klobuchar, businessman Tom Steyer, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former vice president Joe Biden, the national polling front-runner — also used their time to make a final pitch to a worried Democratic electorate that they alone had the best shot to beat Trump.
Even as she sought to minimize her dust-up with Sanders, insisting she did not want to fight with him, Warren parlayed it into a direct response to a persistent worry that has nagged at her campaign, sometimes bothering even her devoted supporters: That the very existence of sexism could weaken her in a general election campaign against Trump.
“Back in the 1960s, people asked, could a Catholic win? Back in 2008, people asked if an African-American can win,” Warren said. “Both times the Democratic Party stepped up and said, yes, got behind their candidate, and we changed America.”
The exchange followed an unusual escalation between Sanders and Warren, two darlings of the left who seemed to abide by a mutual nonaggression pact before their uneasy peace ruptured in recent days over the report about his words during their 2018 meeting — which Sanders aides said was a “lie” — as well as the revelation his volunteers had been told to speak dismissively of her supporters.
The two did not speak before arriving at Drake University for the debate, according to someone familiar with one of the campaigns. They kept their tone restrained, but after the two-hour debate ended, Warren approached Sanders but did not take his outstretched hand. The two spoke intensely — her shrugging, him pointing — before turning away from each other.
During the debate, Sanders insisted he believed a woman could beat Trump, saying he waited in 2015 to see if Warren was going to run for president before he mounted his own campaign.
“As a matter of fact, I didn’t say it,” he said, in response to a question about the CNN report that said he cast doubt upon a woman’s ability to win the presidency during a private meeting with Warren in late 2018. “Anybody [who] knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman could not be president of the United States."
But he still argued that he would be the strongest candidate against a president whom Democrats are desperate to defeat, touching off a brief exchange with Warren in which she appeared to silently count up the years since he last beat a Republican incumbent.
“The only way we beat Trump by is by a campaign of energy and excitement and a campaign that has by far the largest voter turnout in the history of this country,” Sanders said. He noted he defeated a Republican to win a House seat in 1990, which Warren pointed out was 30 years ago.
Buttigieg, who is polling in the top four candidates in Iowa even as he lags with black voters nationally, defended his own chances of becoming the nominee when pressed by a moderator. He argued black voters who know him best in South Bend are supporting him and that he will work hard to overcome the deficit.
“The biggest mistake we could make is to take black voters for granted,” Buttigieg said. “And I never will.”
Biden brought up his own strength with black voters several times, and also argued that Trump’s attempt to damage him with allegations about his son and Ukraine had only made him a stronger candidate ready to face down Trump.
“I’ve been the object of his affection now more than anybody else on this stage,” Biden said to laughter. “I’ve taken all the hits he can deliver.”
The night brought more scrutiny than usual for Sanders, who has at previous meetings elided questions about his marquee proposal, Medicare for All, even as moderates onstage tore into Warren over the issue.
While Warren has laid out the cost of her plan and where the money would come from, Sanders has only released a broad framework without a detailed price tag.
Biden told Sanders he needed to be “candid” about the steep costs, and Klobuchar piled on.
“I think you should have to show how you’re going to pay for things, Bernie. I do,” Klobuchar said.
Sanders argued it was “insane” how much working people are paying for health care, and that his plan would bring those costs down. In another exchange, he argued his label as a Democratic Socialist would not hurt his chances in a general election, because he would expose Trump as a fraud.
“The campaign that we are going to run will expose the fraudulency of who Donald Trump is,” Sanders said. “Donald Trump is corrupt, he is a pathological liar, and he is a fraud.”
Warren’s rocky embrace of Medicare for All caused her to slide in the polls last fall, and Klobuchar seemed eager to remind voters of her stance, saying her two-step plan to implement Medicare for All was a signal that she realized eliminating private insurance would be disruptive for millions of Americans.
“You acknowledged that [with] Medicare for All, you couldn’t get there right away,” Klobuchar said.
Some members of Sanders’ staff expressed their frustration with the debate, with his national press secretary tweeting that it seemed like Fox News, not CNN, was hosting. The debate’s moderators did not press Warren to defend the disputed claim that Sanders told her a woman couldn’t be elected president and instead simply asked for her reaction to his reported comments.
Before the debate, President Trump weighed in from a rally in Milwaukee to say he did not think Sanders would speak that way.
Despite the acrimony in recent days, the debate opened with a somber tone and the most detailed discussion of foreign policy on a debate stage over the past year.
Sanders seemed eager to differentiate himself from Biden, the current national front-runner, and pointed to Biden’s vote in support of the Iraq War when the two were in the Senate.
The Sanders campaign has lobbed sharp criticism at Biden in recent days after former secretary of state John Kerry, a surrogate for the former vice president, argued in Iowa that he and Biden did not know they were voting for the war in Iraq, and were just trying to give President George W. Bush leverage to negotiate with Iraq.
“Joe and I listened to what Dick Cheney and George Bush and [Donald] Rumsfeld had to say,” Sanders said, referring to Bush’s vice president and defense secretary who helped lead the push for the war by declaring Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. “I thought they were lying. . . . Joe saw it differently.”
Biden acknowledged his vote to authorize the war ended up being a mistake, given that Bush ended up invading instead of pursuing a diplomatic solution. But Biden argued that he was in charge of bringing troops home from Iraq once he became vice president under President Barack Obama.
“It was a mistaken vote but I think my record overall on everything we’ve done, I’m prepared to compare it to anybody’s on this stage,” Biden said.
Warren called for cuts to the defense budget and cracking down on the “revolving door” between the defense industry and the Pentagon.
Klobuchar and Biden said they would leave some combat troops in the Middle East, but Warren said she would take them out altogether.
“We need to get our combat troops out — they are not helping create more safety for the region,” Warren said.