DES MOINES — They insisted they did not want to fight. They swore they were friends. But as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders departed the debate stage on Tuesday night, they had a heated exchange that suggests they were not ready to end a dispute over his reported 2018 comment that a woman couldn’t win the presidency.
Sanders stretched out his hand to Warren after she approached his lectern, but Warren did not take it. The two animatedly exchanged words outside the range of CNN’s podium microphones. Warren shrugged, Sanders pointed and then he abruptly turned and stalked off.
On Wednesday, CNN said it located two backup recordings from the microphones Sanders and Warren were wearing.
“I think you called me a liar on national TV,” Warren told Sanders.
“You know, let’s not do it right now. If you want to have that discussion, we’ll have that discussion,” Sanders said.
“Anytime,” Warren replied.
“You called me a liar,” Sanders said. “You told me — all right, let’s not do it now.”
The testy exchange between two formerly friendly progressive allies was the latest salvo in a war between the two camps that threatens to consume the left lane of the Democratic primary in the final weeks before the Iowa caucus. The feud has the potential to help Warren by allowing her to address head-on some voters’ concerns about a woman’s chances at the top of the ticket.
But it also could backfire on both of them and boost the senators’ centrist rivals, former vice president Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind. That concern has led to pleas for peace from outside progressive groups.
Incensed Sanders’ supporters tweeted snake emojis at Warren fans after the debate, a move that her campaign surrogates denounced as a sexist trope. And Sanders’ campaign cochair Nina Turner took to the spin room shortly after the debate to tell reporters that it was Warren, not Sanders, who appeared to be holding a grudge after the two clashed about whether Sanders privately told her he didn’t believe a woman could defeat President Trump, which Sanders denies.
“Go back and watch the clip. Senator Sanders put his hand out,” she said.
Warren and Sanders campaign aides declined to comment on what the two said to each other after the debate and whether they planned to meet to work things out. The rift could morph into a longer conflict since Sanders strongly denied Warren’s accusation — riling up each candidates’ supporters.
The breakdown of the candidates’ informal non-aggression pact comes after months of growing tensions between the two campaigns. The friction developed after some Warren backers became frustrated by what they saw as unfair scrutiny directed toward her on health care and other issues compared to Sanders — as well as veiled jabs from his staff and surrogates and the sometimes vitriolic tone some of his supporters use against hers online.
A top adviser to Sanders urged the two candidates to tamp down the flames.
“They should absolutely talk to each other about the common goal — making sure that 19 days out from Iowa, a progressive who opposes bad wars, stands up to banking interests, and strengthens Social Security wins the nomination,” said California Representative Ro Khanna, a cochair of Sanders’ campaign who also has a good relationship with Warren.
Other progressive leaders also urged deescalation, warning that the more centrist candidates could benefit as the liberals bicker. Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the liberal Justice Democrats group, tweeted that either a Warren or Sanders presidency would be “historic” and that progressives should focus on making the case against Biden or Buttigieg instead of attacking each other. He suggested some of the internecine online warfare was due to “bots,” or automated accounts, rather than real people.
For most of the time the self-described friends have been running against each other, they have downplayed their differences, tag-teaming their defense of liberal proposals like Medicare for All on the debate stage and telling reporters they love each other’s ideas.
But some of Warren’s supporters have chafed as she drew heavy scrutiny over how she would pay for Medicare for All — especially because Sanders, who has long championed the idea, has never laid out the cost in as much detail.
“I think it’s been incredibly unfair,” said Iowa state Senator Zach Wahls, who has endorsed Warren.
That may explain why Warren and Sanders sidestepped key moments when they could have deescalated when the mini-war between them broke out last weekend.
On Sunday, after Politico reported that Sanders volunteers had been directed to convince Warren backers that she attracted only “affluent” voters, Warren took aim squarely at Sanders. She told reporters she was “disappointed” that he told people to “trash” her, and faulted him for taking portions of the Democratic base for granted. Then she sent out a fund-raising e-mail with the same message.
For some progressive groups, it was a nightmare that kept getting worse. The Vermont-based Democracy for America began considering making a public plea to the candidates to stand down on Monday morning following the exchange on Sunday, only to watch the standoff grow even more intense after the publication of a CNN story on Warren’s and Sanders’ private 2018 conversation. The group put out its statement shortly after.
Sanders’ top aides further escalated the tensions with Warren’s campaign by calling the CNN account a lie, instead of allowing that Warren and Sanders may have remembered the conversation differently.
Some in Sanders’ camp believe Warren sought out a fight with him, and blame her for the breakdown in their informal peace pact.
“When you take something that happened over a year ago and all of a sudden come out with it ... then something is going on,” said Jim Zogby, a board member of Sanders’ nonprofit group, Our Revolution. “I don’t know other than Iowa’s three weeks away and she’s slipping in the polls that this comes up now.”
Warren told a reporter from the Intercept on Monday that she did not seek to make her private conversation with Sanders public. His comment about a woman’s chances of winning the presidency was originally reported by CNN, citing four anonymous sources, and Warren later confirmed it in a statement that stressed she wished to move on from the subject. Sanders denied that he said he didn’t think a woman could defeat Trump, claiming that he talked generally about Trump’s willingness to use gender and race against candidates.
Despite the controversy, the confrontation could boost Warren in these crucial final weeks before the Iowa caucuses if it helps her put to bed a nagging concern about her electability as a woman candidate just four years after Hillary Clinton, the first female nominee of a major party, lost to Trump.
“It’s absolutely something she’s had to face the whole time,” said Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state lawmaker who has endorsed Warren. “Good for her for making it an issue because it is an issue.”
And even as some of Sanders’ young supporters may be angry at her, Warren’s appeal on the electability of women could attract a key group in the state. Sean McElwee, who cofounded the liberal think tank Data for Progress that has worked with the Warren campaign, pointed out that the average Iowa Democratic caucus-goer is a woman over 50.
“If a lot of people end up going into the booth convinced that a woman can beat Trump and gender is [on people’s minds], that actually would probably be good for Warren,” McElwee said.
The spat has also put a spotlight on Sanders’ sometimes virulent supporters online. In recent days, his backers have flooded the Twitter mentions of Warren supporters and may unintentionally reinforce a perception that Sanders’ backers are not supportive of party unity.
“If Bernie had spent this campaign reaching out to people who weren’t with him in 2016, he’d be the dominant front-runner and probably the nominee,” Adam Jentleson, a strategist who is close to the Warren campaign, posted on Twitter. “Instead, 20 days before Iowa, his insular supporters are congratulating themselves for tweeting snake emojis at his closest ally.”