The buzziest moment of Tuesday night's Democratic debate didn't happen until after it was over — and only two people know what happened.
As candidates exchanged pleasantries and handshakes on stage, Elizabeth Warren approached Bernie Sanders, who stretched out his hand for her to shake. But Warren either didn’t see — or rebuffed him, and a tense exchange followed.
Warren gestured with her right hand, then clasped both hands together while addressing a seemingly surprised Sanders.
Warren kept speaking to Sanders, who nodded, then put his hands up as if to stop her. Both spoke, as Tom Steyer approached the pair. Then Sanders seemed to offer a few sentences before both turned their backs — Sanders a split second before Warren — and walked away.
Neither campaign immediately spoke about what was said. Asked afterward, Steyer said he had no knowledge of the apparent skirmish.
“Look, I don't know what they were saying,” Steyer said. “And whatever they were going on between each other, I was trying to get out of the way as fast as possible.”
The encounter came after the two progressive stalwarts signaled that they trying to deescalate hostilities during the two-hour debate. Instead, their fleeting encounter appeared to revive tensions between the longtime friends — sparking intense interest in what was said when their mics were shut off.
Heading into the night, the two had clashed over differing recollections of a 2018 meeting between them to discuss the possibility of them both running for president. Warren stood by a CNN report that Sanders told her he didn’t think a woman could defeat Donald Trump. Sanders denied that version of their conversation.
News of the meeting emerged after POLITICO reported last weekend that Sanders’ campaign had dispatched aides to attack Warren’s electability — the opening salvo that breached their nonaggression pact between the two.
Warren and Sanders faced pressure from progressive groups and many of their own supporters to put their differences aside. Some feared that all-out acrimony would undermine their causes and allow a more moderate Democrat to make gains at their expense.
Sanders got the first opportunity to respond when he was asked point blank during the debate why he said a woman couldn’t win — and again denied the remarks. “Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't say it,” he said.
“I don't want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want,” he said. “Anybody (who) knows me knows that it's incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States.”
Sanders added that he initially deferred to Warren to run in 2015 and that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three million votes—after defeat him in the Democratic primary.
“How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States?” he asked. “If any of the women on this stage or any of the men on this stage win the nomination, I hope that's not the case, I hope it's me, but if they do, I will do everything in my power to make sure that they are elected in order to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of our country.”
Asked what she thought when Sanders made his comments to her in 2018, Warren said she disagreed, confirming again her version.
"Look, this question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised, and it's time for us to attack it head-on," Warren said, imploring the Iowa audience to "look at the men" on the debate stage: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Sanders and Steyer.
“Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie,” Warren said. She suggested that the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at their winning record.
“Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost ten elections,” she added in what was the moment of the night. “The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they've been in are the women. Amy (Klobuchar) and me.”
By the time Sanders reentered the conversation, it was to correct Warren to include the fact that he had beaten a GOP incumbent 30 years ago. She jumped in, comparing the glass ceiling to what confronted former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.
"Look, don't deny that the question is there," Warren said. "Back in the 1960s, people asked, 'Could a Catholic win?' Back in 2008, people asked if an African-American could win. In both times, the Democratic Party stepped up and said yes. Got behind their candidate, and we changed America. That is who we are."