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 GillibrandSanders seeks spark from Ocasio-Cortez at Queens rally Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs Senate confirms Trump's Air Force secretary pick MORE (N.Y.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSenate Democrats want Warren to talk costs on 'Medicare for All' Sanders seeks spark from Ocasio-Cortez at Queens rally Biden seeks to fundraise off fact he's running out of money MORE took aim at one another over former Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenTake Trump literally and seriously in Minnesota Ninth woman accuses Al Franken of inappropriate contact Al Franken to host SiriusXM radio show 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 SandersOcasio-Cortez: Sanders' heart attack was a 'gut check' moment Ocasio-Cortez tweets endorsement of Sanders Ocasio-Cortez throws support to Sanders at Queens rally MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash Ocasio-Cortez: Sanders' heart attack was a 'gut check' moment Ocasio-Cortez tweets endorsement of Sanders MORE (D-Mass.) have taken swipes at former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenCNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview Yang cautions Democrats: Impeachment might not be 'successful' Ocasio-Cortez: Sanders' heart attack was a 'gut check' moment 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 HickenlooperThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump seeks distance from Syria crisis Gardner dodges questions about Trump's call for Biden probe 2020 Presidential Candidates MORE said that “socialism is not the answer” if the party wants to defeat President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash CNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview MORE, Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeOvernight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate John Kerry calls out lack of climate questions at debate CNN catches heat for asking candidates about Ellen, Bush friendship at debate 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 ClintonJill Stein: 'I am not a Russian spy' Trump criticizes Clinton for suggesting Jill Stein was Russian asset Graham: I'm seeking to make Trump successful 'but not at all costs' 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 CruzHillicon Valley: GOP lawmakers offer election security measure | FTC Dem worries government is 'captured' by Big Tech | Lawmakers condemn Apple over Hong Kong censorship Lawmakers condemn Apple, Activision Blizzard over censorship of Hong Kong protesters The Hill's Morning Report — Trump's impeachment jeopardy deepens 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.”