For much of the presidential campaign, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have avoided attacking each other. But at the CNN/Des Moines Register debate Tuesday, they took the gloves off, sparring over controversies that have further divided their supporters.
The debate was the final one before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucus.
Soon after the debate began, Sanders was asked about a comment he reportedly made to Warren during a previously undisclosed meeting that a woman could not beat President Donald Trump in November.
“As a matter of fact I didn’t say it,” Sanders said. “How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become the president of the United States?”
Sanders referenced then Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win over Trump in 2016.
But the debate’s moderators seemed not to accept that response, turning the exchange over to Warren by asking what her reaction was when Sanders uttered the remark.
“I disagreed,” Warren responded, adding that Sanders is “my friend.”
Warren turned the question into an argument for female candidates, repeatedly asserting that women candidates have historically “outperformed” their male counterparts.
That sparked one of the more awkward moments of the debate: When Warren said no one else on the stage had beaten a Republican incumbent in the past three decades (Warren herself defeated GOP Sen. Scott Brown in 2012 to claim her seat). Sanders fired back that he had defeated a Republican when he ran for Congress in 1990: Peter Smith.
“When?” Warren asked, counting the years with her fingers. “Wasn’t that 30 years ago?”
The tension carried over to post-debate, when the still-rolling cameras caught the two in what appeared to be a heated conversation and an abandoned effort to shake hands.
The discussion over female candidates came as Democrats have faced criticism from within over the lack of diversity in the field. All of the candidates on stage Tuesday, the front runners in polling and fundraising, are white.
Foreign policy emerged as a big issue in the debate among the six Democrats on stage.
With the world still smarting from last week’s confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, the candidates united in slamming Trump’s handling of escalating tensions with Tehran. Together they blasted the president for withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, but most also acknowledged they would retain some U.S. military presence in the Middle East.