Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders disagreed in a Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday over whether he once told her a woman could not win the White House in 2020, underlining an emerging rift between the progressive contenders as the first voting nears.
After days of tensions between the two U.S. senators, friends and liberal standard-bearers, who agreed early in the campaign not to attack each other, Sanders emphatically denied he ever made the remark, saying it was “incomprehensible” he could have said such a thing in a private 2018 meeting with her.
Warren confirmed the comment and said she disagreed with Sanders, but quickly pivoted to the broader question of whether a woman could be elected president.
“Bernie is my friend and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. But look, 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.
The dispute brought questions about gender, sexism and electability back into the spotlight in the campaign, almost four years after Democrat Hillary Clinton failed in her bid to become the first woman president, in an upset loss to Republican Donald Trump.
With only three weeks until the crucial, first-in-the-nation Feb. 3 nominating contest in Iowa, the sprawling field of 12 Democratic candidates is still struggling to convince voters desperate to oust Trump in November’s election which one of them is best positioned to do so.
The race remains fluid, with opinion polls showing the top four contenders – former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders, Warren, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in an extremely tight race.
Warren pointed out the men on the stage had collectively lost 10 elections, while the two women on the stage – she and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar – had won each election they had contested.
“I have won every race, every place, every time, I have won in the reddest of districts, I have won in the suburban areas, in the rural areas,” Klobuchar said, pointing to the 2018 election of women governors in conservative states as further evidence a woman can win the White House this year.
After the debate, Warren appeared to refuse to shake hands with Sanders when he extended his hand as the candidates mingled on the stage. The two had a brief discussion that appeared tense until it was interrupted by candidate Tom Steyer.
Asked on CNN about the moment, Steyer said: “I felt like, OK, there’s something going on here. Good night, I’m out of here. It was one of those awkward moments where I felt like, OK, I need to move on as fast as possible.”
The flap between the two progressives allowed the front-running Biden, who has shown new signs of competitiveness in the two early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire, to stay largely above the fray.