BOSTON (CBS) – The frost was on the Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders relationship even before Tuesday night’s debate began, as Sanders gave her the old Bill Belichick post-game handshake and “smile” as they prepared for the opening bell.

And when the topic of Sanders’ alleged dismissal of a female candidate’s chances came up, his unease was obvious.

“How could anybody in America in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States?” he bellowed.

That was exactly the point Warren wanted to make, as she adroitly turned her spat with Sanders into a pitch for the viability of a female nominee.

“The only people on this stage who’ve won every election they’ve been in are the women, Amy [Klobuchar] and me,” she said to one of the evening’s biggest bursts of applause.

And she set a trap for Sanders with this carefully-planned follow up: “The only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican in the last 30 years is me.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speak as Tom Steyer looks on after the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on January 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This was Sanders’ cue to do something he rarely does in public – be gracious, instead of aggrieved. Following Joe Biden’s example of offering an apology for his Iraq War authorization vote and moving on, Sanders could have said to Warren: Look, I’m sorry if I misspoke and offended you. What you recall certainly doesn’t reflect what’s on my record and in my heart. But instead of fighting about it, I’d like to join with you and all like-minded progressives to make sure that the coming years see true equality for women, in their paychecks and in the halls of power. And I want to reassure all women listening to us tonight that if you vote for me, you will have a champion in the White House every bit as devoted to your cause as Elizabeth or Amy.

Instead, Sanders insisted on challenging Warren’s math and looked weak doing so, stepping on what was otherwise a strong debate performance.

What does it all mean? Fifty-seven percent of likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers describe themselves as “feminist.”

Sanders has struggled at times to attract female voters.

And Donald Trump’s endorsement of his credibility isn’t likely to address that problem: “She said that Bernie said a woman can’t win,” Trump told a rally last night. “I don’t believe Bernie said that, I really don’t, it’s just not the kind of a thing he’d say.”

What did Warren say to him as she ignored his handshake as the debate wrapped up? Whatever it was, Sanders didn’t like it.

And with post-debate polls showing strong marks for Warren, it’s possible his distemper may have cost him some of the head of steam he appeared to be building in Iowa.

Jon Keller

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