The Memo: 2020 Democratic tensions burst to surface

Tensions between Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenEx-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Former Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' Hill.TV's Krystal Ball rips Warren over feud with Sanders MORE (D-Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegFormer insurance executive: 'Medicare for all' would eliminate jobs that are 'not needed' Buttigieg says he's proud to be a part of US system amid UK royal family drama Buttigieg asked about 'Mayo Pete' memes by New York Times ed board MORE have burst into public view in recent days — and that’s a sign of things to come in the 2020 Democratic race.

With the Iowa caucuses just seven weeks away, at least four candidates — Warren, Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Ex-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Parnas says he doesn't think that Joe Biden did anything wrong regarding Ukraine MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersEx-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Former Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' Hill.TV's Krystal Ball rips Warren over feud with Sanders MORE (I-Vt.) — have a plausible chance of becoming the nominee.

That means sharper contrasts are being drawn and real enmity is becoming apparent.

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In a speech in New Hampshire on Thursday, Warren took aim at both Biden and Buttigieg, albeit without naming either one.

The Massachusetts senator, who has lost altitude in the polls after an earlier surge, complained about candidates who were “counting on Republican politicians having an epiphany” or who believed the road to success was to “adopt Republican critiques of progressive policies.”

On Friday, Buttigieg complained about “purity tests” in the party — particularly regarding criticism of his closed-door fundraising events. Those events have been pilloried by some progressive activists who have tarred Buttigieg with the hashtag #WallStreetPete.

Warren has abjured similar fundraising events in her presidential campaign, but she did hold them when she ran for reelection to the Senate last year.

“The thing about these purity tests is the people issuing them can’t even meet them,” Buttigieg said at a Washington Post event.

Strategists across the party believe these skirmishes will only grow hotter. 

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“The knives are going to be coming out full force,” said one Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity to talk candidly.

The strategist suggested one obvious occasion for those tensions to erupt: the televised debate set for Thursday. 

That event is now shrouded in doubt because of a labor dispute, however. 

The debate is due to take place at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. But a union, Unite Here Local 11, is seeking a collective bargaining agreement with a company that is subcontracted to provide food service operations to the college. The union plans to picket on the day of the debate. All of the candidates have said they will not cross a picket line.

Whether or not the debate happens, the race for the nomination is sure to become more aggressive as the clock ticks down, the TV ad wars intensify and candidates become keener to distinguish themselves from their competitors.

“It is going to get more acerbic, more focused,” said Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator who sits on Biden's campaign finance committee. “I am not shocked by that.” 

Harpootlian showed he was willing to hit back on behalf of his candidate too.

Referring to Warren, he said, “The shine is off that penny. Her surge is receding.” He added that “Sanders is Sanders — he’s kind of static." 

“The only way for [Warren and Sanders] to move up is to bring Biden down,” he asserted.

Biden has also warned of the potential consequences of Democrats choosing a left-wing standard-bearer. 

On Friday, he cited the heavy defeat suffered by Britain’s Labour Party in the previous day’s general election to make his point. Labour was led by a longtime leftist, Jeremy Corbyn, and delivered its worst performance since 1935. 

“Look what happens when the Labour Party moves so, so far to the left,” Biden warned in remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser. 

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Heavier jabs are likely to be thrown from all the candidates because the polls are so close. 

The RealClearPolitics polling averages in Iowa and New Hampshire have the top quartet of candidates all within roughly 6 points of one another.

Every campaign is also aware that heavy attacks can backfire, however. One often-cited example occurred in Iowa in 2004, when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) and then-Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) hit out at each other vigorously as the caucuses neared. 

Those attacks appeared, in retrospect, to pave the way for then-Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes Kerry18 progressive groups sign unity pledge amid Sanders-Warren feud Mellman: Democrats — Buckle up for a wild ride Sanders hits highest support since August MORE (D-Mass.) to come through the middle and win the caucuses. Kerry went on to become the Democratic nominee but lost the general election to former President George W. Bush. 

The notion of a prolonged and bitter primary alarms many Democrats, who are desperate to beat President TrumpDonald John TrumpLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Saudi Arabia paid 0 million for cost of US troops in area Parnas claims ex-Trump attorney visited him in jail, asked him to sacrifice himself for president MORE and are keenly aware that he is competitive in polls of many of the battleground states that paved his way to victory over former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFormer Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' NYT: Justice investigating alleged Comey leak of years-old classified info New Hampshire state lawmaker switches support from Warren to Klobuchar MORE in 2016.

"I think Trump is far more dangerous, politically, than people realize. If it wasn’t for his personally offensive nature, where would his poll numbers be? He’s going to lose because people don’t like him? That theory was disproven in the last election,” said the Democratic strategist.

Such reasons make others in the party hope that, even as tensions crank up, they do not spiral out of control.

“I do expect the candidates to sharpen their message and their critiques of each other,” said Democratic strategist Tara Dowdell. “But I don’t expect a dogfight.” 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.