US Senator Bernie Sanders on Tuesday attacked Democratic frontrunner former US vice president Joe Biden on foreign policy, but found himself fighting accusations of sexism in the final presidential debate before Democrats begin choosing who challenges US President Donald Trump in November’s election.
With no candidate yet to carve out a clear lead less than three weeks to go before the first votes in the nominations battle, the stakes were high for the six presidential hopefuls on stage in Iowa.
The largely civilized showdown defied earlier expectations of fireworks, with tensions largely held in check during the two-hour debate.
However, a rift between Sanders and US Senator Elizabeth Warren appeared to widen afterward when Warren declined to shake hands with her long-time friend and fellow progressive.
The candidates tangled over everything from troop deployments and foreign policy to healthcare, international trade, climate change and a woman’s chance of winning the White House.
Sanders, 78, assailed Biden, 77, over his vote in support of the 2003 Iraq war as the current tensions in the Middle East dominated the opening exchanges.
With Washington’s conflict with Iran as the backdrop, non-interventionist Sanders drew a sharp contrast, saying that while he opposed an Iraq war that was “based on lies,” former vice president Biden trumpeted the effort.
“I thought they were lying,” Sanders said of then-US president George W. Bush administration’s justifications for war in 2002. “I didn’t believe them for a moment. Joe saw it differently.”
Biden said he had long acknowledged the war was “a mistake,” but refrained from sparring with Sanders over Iraq.
Instead, Biden appealed for unity in preventing Trump from winning a second term.
“The American character is on the ballot,” Biden said. “Not what Donald Trump is spewing out — the hate, the xenophobia, the racism. That’s not what we are as a nation.”
Each candidate is desperate for a breakout moment that could give them the vital momentum heading into the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, which begins the presidential primary season.
The four candidates in the top tier — Biden, Sanders, Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg — are bunched together in polling.
US Senator Amy Klobuchar and billionaire advocate Tom Steyer rounded out the debate participants in Iowa’s capital, Des Moines.
For months, Sanders and Warren have battled peacefully for the right to wave the campaign’s progressive flag.
However, their non-aggression pact unraveled in the past few days, with Warren endorsing a report that Sanders privately told her he believed a woman could not defeat Trump.
“I didn’t say it,” Sanders said at the debate, adding that it was absurd for anyone to think a woman could not win the White House.
Warren said he did, before adding that she was “not here to try to fight with Bernie.”
She then proceeded to highlight the electability of women, noting that the men on stage collectively lost 10 elections, prompting laughter from the audience.
However, when the debate concluded, signs of lingering animosity remained: Viral video shows Warren refusing to shake Sanders’ outstretched hand and instead speaking briefly to the senator.
While lacking the effervescence of earlier debates, the candidates dutifully debated trade (Sanders said he opposes the new US-Mexico-Canada trade pact), climate change (Steyer said if elected would declare a climate “state of emergency”) and taxing the rich (Warren pushed her wealth tax).
Sanders, who suffered a heart attack in November last year, but has enjoyed a mini surge in the polls, made Biden his No. 1 target.
“I just don’t think that Biden’s record is going to bring forth the energy that we need to defeat Trump,” Sanders tweeted as he released a damning three-minute anti-Biden video just before the debate.
Trump, meanwhile, sought to thrust himself into the spotlight, accusing Sanders of being “nasty” and mocking Biden for occasional memory issues as he addressed supporters in Wisconsin.
“They haven’t been doing great on the debates, I have to tell you,” Trump said.
The debate risks being overshadowed by a historic political drama: Trump’s looming impeachment trial in the US Senate next week, which is likely to force four presidential candidates to stay in Washington serving as jurors in the proceedings instead of winning over undecided Iowa voters.
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