DES MOINES, Iowa (CBS) – Going into Tuesday night’s debate, inquiring minds wondered – how would Sen. Elizabeth Warren handle her flare-up with Sen. Bernie Sanders over his alleged remark to her that he didn’t think a woman could unseat President Trump?
Warren couldn’t just shrug it off and retreat to her campaign-long non-aggression pact with Sanders; bad things tend to happen to candidates who throw out an explosive charge, then wilt when the time comes to press the case to their target’s face. (See: Tim Pawlenty’s failed 2012 bid for the GOP nomination.)
But Iowa Democrats are also notoriously averse to sharp-edged negative attacks.
So when the moment finally came nearly an hour into the debate and Sanders once again denied having said it, Warren stood her ground, but smartly pivoted to a broader point about the apparent top issue to Democratic voters – electability.
“I think the best way to talk about who can win is to look at who’s got a winning record,” she said. “So, can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage, they’ve lost ten elections. The only ones who have won are the women, Amy and me.”
That brought down the house. And Warren followed up with another zinger: “The only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past thirty years is me.”
Sanders should have taken his punch and moved on, but he couldn’t.
“I defeated a Republican running for Congress,” he said to Warren.
“When?” she asked.
As Warren pantomimed doing the math, laughter swelled in the hall.
“Wasn’t that thirty years ago?” she finally said.
“Thirty years ago,” Sanders repeated, the air hissing out of his tires. “It was 1990 as a matter of fact.”
Sanders looked old and a bit foolish. And I’d be surprised if those touchy Iowans hold the moment against her, although Sanders surely will, if that tense, handshake-free moment as the candidates dispersed at the end was any indication.
The debate wasn’t a total loss for Sanders – he once again claimed the farthest left position on military presence in the Middle East and the USMCA trade pact.
And the other candidates had their moments. Pete Buttigieg was his usual uber-articulate self. Amy Klobuchar staked a claim to be running mate in charge of the Midwest. Tom Steyer was agreeable. And Joe Biden once again cleared the extraordinarily low expectations bar he set in the early debates.
I’ve covered enough Iowa caucuses to know that you never really know what those friendly, but inscrutable, folks are thinking.
But here’s a gentleman’s bet that wavering Warren voters were reassured, casual Bernie fans were given pause, and many women, regardless of affiliation, had a moment of aggressive head-nodding.