Barbs start to fly ahead of first Democratic debate

Democratic candidates for president are increasingly throwing barbs and exchanging swipes with one another ahead of their first debate in just three weeks. 

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Gillibrand11 senators urge House to pass .5T package before infrastructure bill Hochul tells Facebook to 'clean up the act' on abortion misinformation after Texas law Democratic senators request probe into Amazon's treatment of pregnant employees MORE (N.Y.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegDOJ sues to block JetBlue-American Airlines partnership On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Blumenthal calls on Buttigieg to investigate American Airlines-JetBlue partnership MORE took aim at one another over former Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenFranken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Al Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' Andrew Cuomo and the death of shame MORE’s (D-Minn.) resignation, with Buttigieg implicitly criticizing Gillibrand by saying he wouldn’t have pressured Franken to resign over sexual misconduct allegations based on what was known at the time.

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Gillibrand was the first senator to call for Franken’s resignation last year, and she’s been criticized by some Democrats for doing so. 

“For my part, I chose to stand by eight women,” Gillibrand told SiriusXM host Zerlina Maxwell on “Signal Boost” Tuesday, a day after Buttigieg’s initial comments at an MSNBC town hall. “I would stand by those women again. I value women, so my position is really clear.”

Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs Manchin fires warning shot on plan to expand Medicare Democrats steamroll toward showdown on House floor MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Warren11 senators urge House to pass .5T package before infrastructure bill Senate Democrats seeking information from SPACs, questioning 'misaligned incentives' UN secretary-general blasts space tourism MORE (D-Mass.) have taken swipes at former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE over his willingness to attend high-dollar fundraisers with Wall Street supporters. Warren also took a shot at Biden over his willingness to work with Republicans. 

Biden is the front-runner in the race, and Sanders and Warren are both fighting to catch him. The two senators are also rivals themselves as they battle to be the pick for progressive Democrats.

Over the weekend at the California Democratic Convention, several Democratic candidates sparred over socialism. 

After former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperRep. Tim Ryan becomes latest COVID-19 breakthrough case in Congress NY Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 in latest House breakthrough case Florida Democrat becomes latest breakthrough COVID-19 case in House MORE said that “socialism is not the answer” if the party wants to defeat President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE, Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert Inslee Washington state extends eviction protections through end of October Washington governor to Idaho officials: Stop 'clogging up my hospitals' Seattle area to require COVID-19 vaccine to enter indoor venues MORE fired back.

“I’m a governor who doesn’t think we should be ashamed of our progressive values,” he said to whoops and cheers from a liberal audience. 

The battles are hardly surprising in a 24-candidate race that is just beginning to take shape. 

But the latest sparring mostly reflects two dynamics in the emerging primary fight.

One is the need for candidates such as Sanders and Warren to take Biden down a peg. 

New polls released this week showed Biden with a double-digit national lead, underscoring his status as the front-runner. 

As a result, candidates are going to be under pressure to step up their attacks on Biden to try to bring him back to the pack.

Separately, more than half the candidates are struggling to get out of the gate. Those Democrats need to make headlines to find any traction at all, and battling with other candidates is one way to do it.

Hickenlooper’s remarks about socialism might not have gone over well with many progressive voters, but they won him attention and might win him some votes down the road. 

Gillibrand also gained some headlines when she was asked about Buttigieg’s remarks.

“Differentiation in a crowded field is tough, so expect sharper elbows to break clustering in the polls,” said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle.

The barbs may be just a preview of what to expect in Miami on June 26 and 27, when 20 Democrats will take part in the debates over two days. 

Still, the sharp words can also come with some downsides. 

The bitter primary battle between Sanders and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 MORE left bruised feelings and some Sanders supporters at home on Election Day.

“I thought we learned our lesson the last time,” one strategist said. “These sorts of things don’t evaporate when the general election begins. The wounds actually deepen.” 

The strategist questioned whether the headlines were worth it, saying it would be surprising if the small tiffs were making anyone pay attention beyond the immediate news cycle. “It’s doing more harm than good,” the strategist said. 

But Democratic strategist Eddie Vale said the sharp exchanges are “totally normal and expected” and expects the party to come together in the end to defeat Trump.

“Within our party there are some big and small differences on policies as well as overall strategy of how to beat Trump,” Vale said. “And that’s normal and healthy to have that debate. These fights will also strengthen the candidates and show who can give and take a punch. If you can’t deal with some criticism in a Democratic primary, you certainly aren’t ready to go toe-to-toe with Trump.”

The GOP primary fight in 2016 was one of the nastiest on record. At one point, Trump accused Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMatthew McConaughey on potential political run: 'I'm measuring it' Professor tells Cruz that Texas's voter ID law is racist Schumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks MORE’s (R-Texas) father of being involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Cruz called Trump a “pathological liar” and a “moron.” 

“The man cannot tell the truth, but he combines it with being a narcissist. A narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen,” Cruz said after Trump’s insinuations about his father. 

In the end, Republicans for the most part rallied around Trump. 

“No one thought that Trump would win the primary, but he made it through by being the strongest candidate in the field,” Vale said.  “And the same will happen on our side this time.”