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 Elizabeth Gillibrand2020 Democrats mark 7th anniversary of DACA 2020 Democrats mark 7th anniversary of DACA Julián Castro defends going on Fox: I'm focused on 'the people out there watching' MORE (N.Y.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegButtigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' Buttigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' Buttigieg on offers of foreign intel: 'Just call the FBI' MORE took aim at one another over former Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Mexican officials scramble to avoid Trump tariffs The Hill's 12:30 Report: Mexican officials scramble to avoid Trump tariffs The Hill's Morning Report - Tariff battle looms as Trump jabs 'foolish' Senate GOP 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 SandersButtigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' Buttigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' The generational divide of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJulián Castro defends going on Fox: I'm focused on 'the people out there watching' Julián Castro defends going on Fox: I'm focused on 'the people out there watching' O'Rourke unveils plan to support women, minority-owned businesses MORE (D-Mass.) have taken swipes at former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenButtigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' Buttigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' Ocasio-Cortez starts petition to repeal Hyde Amendment 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 Wright HickenlooperDemocratic presidential hopefuls react to debate placement Democratic presidential hopefuls react to debate placement The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Biden, Sanders to share stage at first DNC debate MORE said that “socialism is not the answer” if the party wants to defeat President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump defends Stephanopolous interview Trump defends Stephanopolous interview Buttigieg on offers of foreign intel: 'Just call the FBI' MORE, Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert Inslee2020 Democrats mark 7th anniversary of DACA 2020 Democrats mark 7th anniversary of DACA Democratic presidential hopefuls react to debate placement 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 ClintonHouse Intel Republican: 'Foolish' not to take info on opponent from foreign ally House Intel Republican: 'Foolish' not to take info on opponent from foreign ally It's about the delegates, stupid 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 CruzOcasio-Cortez and Cruz's dialogue shows common ground isn't just for moderates Ted Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Ted Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists 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.”