Sanders, Warren exchange underscores Iowa stakes

DES MOINES, Iowa — A pointed exchange between the two leading progressive candidates running for president underscored the tension of Tuesday's debate, just weeks before Iowa voters kick off the Democratic nominating process with the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
But a rift emerged this week over a 2018 conversation in which Sanders allegedly told Warren he did not believe a woman could win the White House, spilling onto the debate stage and threatening to end whatever détente the two contenders had reached. 
Before Tuesday's debate, Sanders denied he made the comment; Warren said he did. On Tuesday night, they stuck to their assertions.
"Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't say it. And I don't want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want. Anybody knows me knows that it's incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States," Sanders said.
"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. "Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they've been in are the women."
As the debate closed and candidates congratulated each other, Sanders and Warren appeared to exchange sharp words. They pointedly did not shake hands.
"I don't know what they were saying," billionaire investor Tom SteyerTom SteyerSteyer says he has 'no plans' to run for public office again GOP targets ballot initiatives after progressive wins On The Trail: The political losers of 2020 MORE, who walked in on the tense conversation, told reporters afterward.
The tension comes as Sanders and Warren have seen their political fortunes flip. Warren, long one of the top contenders in Iowa, has stumbled in recent months as she struggled to say how she would pay for some of her plans. Sanders, who has slowly and methodically built a loyal base of support for five years, has surged into a front-running position.
Sanders returned to the debate stage Tuesday seemingly with another target in mind, his fellow front-runner Joe Biden, the former vice president. Biden and Sanders clashed on trade policy, health policy, and their respective votes for and against authorizing the use of military force in Iraq during the George W. Bush administration.
"Joe and I listened to what Dick Cheney and George Bush and [Donald] Rumsfeld had to say. I thought they were lying. I didn't believe them for a moment," Sanders said. "Joe saw it differently."
"It was a mistaken vote, but I think my record overall, I'm prepared to compare it to anyone on this stage," Biden said. Biden instead contrasted his experience helping the Obama administration negotiate and implement the Iran nuclear deal with President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Romney on NRSC awarding Trump: Not 'my preference' McConnell sidesteps Trump calling him 'dumb son of a b----' MORE's decision to pull out of the deal and recent escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf.
Later, a top Sanders adviser said it was no accident that the Vermont Independent had clashed so often with Biden, who stood side by side at center stage.
"There's some overlapping base, voting base between Sen. Sanders and Vice President BidenJoe BidenTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Biden, first lady send 'warmest greetings' to Muslims for Ramadan The business case for child care reform MORE, and I think we have been involved in an effort to highlight Joe Biden's record as it relates to working-class people in the country as a U.S. senator, and it's not favorable," said Jeff Weaver, Sanders's senior adviser.
The stakes in Tuesday's contest were higher than at any other point in the race as candidates scramble across Iowa in the lead-up to the caucuses. Public polls show Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg and Warren in a virtual four-way tie for first place, with Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden nominates former NSA deputy director to serve as cyber czar | Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after all | Biden pressed on semiconductor production amid shortage Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after pushback from Klobuchar, Lee Lobbying world MORE (D-Minn.) lagging in a distant fifth. A decisive win for any candidate would provide a momentum boost ahead of the New Hampshire primary and contests in Nevada and South Carolina next month.
But those stakes seemed to inspire a sort of prevent defense, as the candidates protected their share of the electorate instead of risking a last-minute slide by attacking a rival. The candidates onstage Tuesday spent most of the largely flat debate addressing the issue Iowa Democrats have said is most important to them: which of them is most capable of beating Trump in November's general election.
"We need a candidate who will excite all parts of the Democratic Party, bring everyone in and give everyone a Democrat to believe in," Warren said. Buttigieg repeatedly described his "different approach," a contrast with what he derisively called a "Washington mentality."
Biden said he had demonstrated the toughness necessary to beat Trump during months in which the president has promoted baseless conspiracy theories about Biden's son's business interests.
"I've been the object of his affection now more than anybody else on this stage," Biden joked.
Klobuchar, in need of a breakout moment as she struggles to reach the top tier, cast herself as a safe harbor capable of winning in territory that has been moving away from Democrats in recent years. 
"If you are tired of the extremes in our politics and the noise and the nonsense, you have a home with me," Klobuchar said.