Warren, Sanders in tense stand-off at Democratic debate

Democratic presidential hopefuls (from left) Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar participating in the seventh Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season at the Drake Univer
Democratic presidential hopefuls (from left) Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar participating in the seventh Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season at the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday. With just three weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, the candidates debated policy issues such as foreign affairs, healthcare, drug prices and universal childcare, as well as the role of women in politics.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Ms Warren in a tense exchange with Mr Sanders moments after the debate, as Mr Steyer looked on. Ms Warren had walked towards Mr Sanders, who offered his hand, but she declined to take it, clasping her hands instead.
Ms Warren in a tense exchange with Mr Sanders moments after the debate, as Mr Steyer looked on. Ms Warren had walked towards Mr Sanders, who offered his hand, but she declined to take it, clasping her hands instead.PHOTO: REUTERS

DES MOINES (Iowa) • At the seventh Democratic debate in Des Moines, the six top-polling presidential hopefuls turned up the heat with just three weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses.

While the discussion on Tuesday largely focused on policy issues such as foreign affairs, healthcare, drug prices and universal childcare, the candidates also sparred over the role of women in politics and took subtle and not-so-subtle digs at one another.

One of the biggest moments actually came after the debate was over.

After shaking hands with billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and Mr Joe Biden, a former vice-president, Senator Elizabeth Warren walked towards Senator Bernie Sanders, who offered his hand. She declined to take it, instead clasping her hands together.

The two then appeared to have some kind of tense conversation.

Midway through, Mr Steyer approached to shake Mr Sanders' hand, standing awkwardly as he looked back and forth at the two, who were still talking.

In an interview with MSNBC afterwards, Mr Steyer did not share what the discussion was about.

"I don't know what they were saying," he said. "I was trying to get out of the way as fast as possible."

The incident was reminiscent of a previous debate, when then presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump skipped the customary handshake after their second face-off in 2016.

The stand-off over the handshake followed from an exchange during the debate, when Ms Warren attacked Mr Sanders over a recent story that he told her in a private meeting that a woman cannot win the 2020 presidential election.

Mr Sanders denied that he had made the remark, pointing to his public comments that a woman could be elected president.

"Anybody who knows me knows that it's incomprehensible that I think a woman cannot be president of the United States," he said.

Ms Warren stuck to her story, then pivoted to go after the question head on.

"Look at the men on this stage - collectively, they have lost 10 elections," she said. "The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they have been in are the women."

Ms Warren then noted that she is the only person on the debate stage "who has beaten an incumbent Republican any time in the past 30 years", a reference to her 2012 Senate win.

Mr Sanders tried to refute her assertion, noting that he beat an incumbent Republican in a 1990 House race.

Ms Warren then deadpanned as she pretended to count with her fingers.

"And I said I was the only one who's beaten an incumbent Republican in 30 years," she said. He replied: "Well, 30 years ago was 1990, as a matter of fact."

It was not the only time that Mr Sanders talked about the past, a risky topic for him, given that if elected, he would be the oldest president in US history, at 79 when he takes office.

During a discussion on foreign policy, Mr Sanders argued that the two worst decisions "in our lifetimes" were the Vietnam War and the Iraq War.

The Vietnam War ended in 1975 - seven years before Mr Pete Buttigieg, the youngest Democrat on stage, was born.

Mr Biden has not named a running mate yet but, for now, former president Barack Obama is taking the spot.

Mr Biden, the former vice-president, loves to cite his old running mate on the campaign trail, and it took only minutes for him to bring Mr Obama up at the debate.

Defending himself from Mr Sanders' criticism of his early support for the Iraq War, Mr Biden noted that Mr Obama had opposed the war from the start and later picked him as vice-president.

Mr Biden even had a bit of a Freudian slip as he made the case.

"Once we were elected president," he said, before stopping to note that he was elected vice-president.

Mr Steyer drew attention for doing two things he has done in all of the four debates he has participated in: wearing a plaid tie and drawing a cross on his hand.

He accessorises with ties adorned with Scottish tartans every day, which his spokesman once said is because "you got to dress for the fight".

On Tuesday night, his other daily fashion routine was briefly visible on television.

He draws a Jerusalem cross - a large cross surrounded by four smaller crosses - on his hand every day with a ballpoint pen. He once told an interview that the ritual is a reminder to "tell the truth no matter what the cost is".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2020, with the headline 'Warren, Sanders in tense stand-off at Democratic debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe