Iowa Debate Preview: All Eyes On The Warren-Sanders Fight

Democratic presidential hopefuls Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (L) and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren greet each other onstage next to former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of the fourth Democratic primary d... Democratic presidential hopefuls Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (L) and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren greet each other onstage next to former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of the fourth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by The New York Times and CNN at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio on October 15, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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January 14, 2020 5:21 p.m.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) — along with four other candidates — will meet on the debate stage Tuesday as a contentious back-and-forth over an alleged sexist comment from Sanders has dominated the headlines. 

Sanders’ and Warren’s squabble started after Politico published a piece over the weekend on a script Sanders volunteers had been given to use while they canvassed. The talking points paint Warren as the candidate of the elites, and imply that she’d be unable to unite multiple factions of the party. 

“I was disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me,” Warren said in response. “I hope Bernie reconsiders and turns his campaign in a different direction.”

Then, on Monday, CNN published a piece about a conversation the two had had in December 2018 about their prospective bids, including that Sanders told Warren he didn’t think a woman could win the election. 

Sanders vociferously denied the report, accusing staff who weren’t in the room of “lying about what happened.”

“Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course!” he added.

In a rebuttal, Warren backed up the reporting in a statement after Sanders’ denial: “Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”

That’s where things stand rolling into the Iowa debate, hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register newspaper. Any political observer worth her salt could tell you that one of, if not the first, questions from moderators will concern the fight. And Sanders is in a tough spot. 

Warren backed him into a corner with her statement after he point-blank denied making the comment. For Sanders to keep denying it at this point is akin to him calling Warren a liar – which the moderators will almost certainly make clear. 

A straightforward mea culpa likely wouldn’t cut it — the comment is a politically toxic thing to own, and he’d have to admit that he also wasn’t truthful about it afterward. 

His most likely move is a combination of the two: some explanation about how he and Warren interpreted the conversation differently, that he was referring to the uphill battle a female nominee faces, before transitioning into some kind of vote of confidence that women — and Warren particularly — are of course qualified to hold the highest office.

BuzzFeed reporting shows that team Warren wants to deescalate the situation and to avoid implying that Sanders is sexist, foreshadowing that she will likely look to quell the contention as well.  

Otherwise, there are fewer clear indicators of fodder for the debate. The impeachment trial looms, of course, but there is little sunlight between the candidates on that. Iran will surely come up, a good topic for South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to remind viewers of his military service and for former Vice President Joe Biden on his extensive foreign policy background. Sanders will probably remind everyone that he voted against invading Iraq in 2003 and attack Biden on it.

The race in Iowa is extremely tight. Polls published recently tell slightly different stories: a Monmouth University poll released Monday shows Biden on top; a CNN/Des Moines Register one from last week has Sanders in front. The conclusion seems to be that Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg are all relatively clustered in the state and that the caucus is still anyone’s game. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and billionaire Tom Steyer, also on the stage Tuesday night, are well behind and will be seeking breakout moments. 

The debate will be shown on CNN and starts at 9 PM E.T.

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