LOS ANGELES — Long-simmering tensions between Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg boiled over Thursday night as they engaged in a blistering exchange over glitzy fund-raising and their respective net worths during the last Democratic debate of the year.
The bitter back-and-forth — the sharpest of any of the previous debates — came as the stakes and pressures are rising with the Iowa caucuses just weeks away.
The seven qualifying presidential candidates struck a high-minded, peaceable tone for the first half of the debate at Loyola Marymount University as they put forward their respective plans on tackling climate change, the economy, and Israel-US relations.
But that all changed when they started fighting over a “wine cave.”
Buttigieg, a 37-year-old who has surged past Warren in some recent polls of Iowa and New Hampshire voters, defended his decision to hold exclusive fund-raisers after Warren praised her own policy of eschewing those events and relying on grass-roots support instead.
“I can’t help but feel that might have been directed at me,” Buttigieg said after Warren finished, but stood by his fund-raising policy as necessary to win given the well-funded state of President Trump’s campaign. “I’m not going to turn away anyone who wants us to help defeat Donald Trump.”
But Warren, who had very rarely gone on the attack on the debate stage before Thursday, came back swinging, bluntly referencing an event that Buttigieg held in California’s wine country.
“The mayor just recently had a fund-raiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900 bottles of wine,” she said. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”
As the crowd gasped, Buttigieg quickly counterattacked by referring to Warren’s personal wealth.
“I am literally the only person on the stage who is not a millionaire or billionaire,” Buttigieg said. “Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine.”
He asked Warren if she believed it would “pollute” his campaign if he accepted a donation from her as a wealthy person, but didn’t wait for her answer.
“I would be glad to have that support,” Buttigieg said.
Warren, who has made her policy of not courting wealthy donors a cornerstone of her campaign’s anticorruption message, stood her ground, insisting she does not “sell access” to her time. Buttigieg then criticized her for denouncing the same fund-raising policy followed by President Barack Obama during his campaigns and Warren herself when she was running for the Senate.
“This is the problem with issuing purity tests you yourself cannot pass,” he shot at her.
At that point, a few of the other five candidates — former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Bernie Sanders, billionaire Tom Steyer, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang — got back into the action, talking over Warren as she waved her hand and asked to be able to respond to Buttigieg again.
“I did not come here to listen to this argument!” Klobuchar exclaimed. “And I have never even been to a wine cave!”
Sanders, whose grass-roots-funded campaign had already made fun of the wine cave fund-raiser in an e-mail, took the opportunity to point out that Biden has also accepted contributions from dozens of billionaires, before landing another zinger on Buttigieg.
“You only got 39 billionaires contributing!” he said. “I know you’re a competitive guy, see if you can take on Joe on that issue.”
Yang made the point that needing to raise money from wealthy donors can be a barrier for women in politics, saying women shouldn’t have to “shake the money tree in the wine cave.”
Steyer, the wealthiest candidate on the stage, stepped in with a somber warning to the squabbling Democrats: “There is someone who is loving this conversation and his name is Donald Trump.”
With the Iowa caucus looming on Feb. 3 and the New Hampshire primary eight days later, the sharpened tone was in some ways inevitable. At past debates, Warren has stayed laser-focused on her economic message and plans, even as she faced a battery of criticism from Buttigieg and Biden about her health care plan and other policies. In recent weeks, she’s telegraphed a new willingness to punch back, especially against Buttigieg, as her national and early-state polling took a hit amid his criticism of her support for Medicare for All.
While Warren and Buttigieg were able to sharply contrast their styles Thursday, fighting carries risks for both of them if voters are turned off by the tactic. Warren even seemed to apologize for it in response to a holiday season question near the end of the debate about whether the candidates would ask forgiveness from or give a gift to one of their rivals.
“I will ask for forgiveness,” Warren said without mention from whom. “I know that sometimes I get really worked up and sometimes I get a little hot.”
She said the passion came from wanting to solve problems facing Americans.
The fiery debate appeared positive for Biden, who still leads the field in national polls and was able to largely avoid scrutiny as the other candidates squabbled. Sanders, too, was able to stay mostly out of the fray.
The two septuagenarian front-runners briefly tangled over their differing plans for health care and were both asked to respond to President Barack Obama’s recent comments about old men “not getting out of the way” of women in politics.
“I’m going to guess he wasn’t talking about me,” Biden, 77, said, before praising his age and experience as an asset. Sanders, 78, also disagreed with Obama’s assessment, saying the problem is income inequality, not old men.
“The issue is not old or young, male or female — the issue is working people standing up, taking on the billionaire class,” he said.
Biden was asked whether, if elected, he would serve a second term, when he would be in his 80s. “I’m not even elected one term yet, let’s see where we are,” he said, dodging the question. “It’s a nice thought.”
Warren wasn’t the only one to tangle with Buttigieg. In one sharp exchange, Klobuchar went after him for a comment in the last debate that she said mocked the Washington experience of the senators on stage.
“While you can dismiss committee hearings, I think this experience works and I have not denigrated your experience as a local official,” she said.
Buttigieg did not let the comment pass from his lower-polling rival. “Actually you did denigrate my experience, senator,” he said, referencing a comment she made implying his support for press freedom was simply a talking point. “It was before the break and I was going to let it go because we’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
“I don’t think we have bigger fish to fry here than picking a president of the United States,” Klobuchar fired back.
Klobuchar and Buttigieg have their own battle going on as Midwestern moderates. On Thursday, she questioned his ability to win an election because he lost his only statewide race in Indiana. In response, Buttigieg referenced his mayoral reelection victory just after he had publicly come out as gay.
“Try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana,” he said, referring to Trump’s conservative vice president.
Klobuchar couldn’t resist one more shot, knocking Buttigieg for his earlier failed bid for state treasurer of Indiana in 2010.
“If you had won in Indiana that would be one thing. You tried, and you lost by 20 points,” she said.