(Bloomberg) -- At campaign events this week in the Carolinas, Elizabeth Warren refused to engage rivals Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg as they depict her as a divisive and condescending elitist. But she and her supporters see a dollop of sexism in the criticism.
After Biden, the former vice president, accused Warren of pushing an “angry unyielding viewpoint,” Warren sent a fundraising email to supporters Friday with the subject line: “I am angry and I own it.”
“Over and over, we are told that women are not allowed to be angry. It makes us unattractive to powerful men who want us to be quiet,” Warren wrote, without mentioning Biden by name.
The accusation reflects how some Warren supporters feel amid a onslaught from Biden and Buttigieg — sparked by a debate over her Medicare for All financing plan — that appears to have blunted her rise in the polls. The attacks come at a moment when many voters are making up their minds ahead of the first contest in Iowa, and are a test of Warren’s resilience after she avoided combat with Democratic rivals for most of the year.
“I think that’s just very sexist,” Peggy Mormann, who’s based in Raleigh, said of the critique of Warren as angry and condescending. “They realize she’s a huge threat to them.”
Maytee Sanz, a construction worker in Charlotte, said: “That happens when women lead. Men are afraid of strong women.”
The criticisms may be working. A study by FiveThirtyEight found Warren has dipped in the polls by an average of 1.7 percentage points since the Oct. 15 debate, while Biden and Buttigieg have risen slightly. Iowa polls show her hanging on to a slim lead, with Buttigieg close behind.
Biden said his issue with Warren is simply about the cost of her Medicare for All plan. “The strong women in my life are angry -- they get angry about things,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash when asked about Warren’s charge. He said criticizing her in sexist terms was “not anything I did or was intending to do.”
The jabs present a difficult choice for Warren’s campaign: Let the claims go unanswered and suffer political damage, or wade into an extended back-and-forth that advisers worry will drown out her message and drive up her negative ratings.
The dilemma comes as a Siena College/New York Times poll raises fresh questions about her ability to win a general election, showing her deadlocked or trailing President Donald Trump in key states like Florida and Pennsylvania, where Biden narrowly leads the president.
Asked in Raleigh on Thursday about Biden’s attacks, Warren brushed it off. “I am here to talk about why I’m in this race,” she said, adding that she has campaigned in 28 states, held hundreds of town halls and taken over 75,000 selfies or photos with supporters.
To some strategists, the attacks are just part of the campaign.
“Biden wants to remain the front-runner and Buttigieg admitted he wants this to be a two-person race,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist who is unaffiliated with a 2020 candidate. “She’s being very selective in the way she engages. But in the debate on Nov. 20, I expect her to respond in some way.”
The clash grew heated after Biden accused Warren of fabricating the math behind her health care plan. Warren escalated the conflict by suggesting Biden was “running in the wrong presidential primary.” The remark struck a nerve with the former vice president, who has brought it up at fundraising events.
From Biden, new arrows are launched almost daily — by the candidate himself, by surrogates on TV, and by staff via social media and campaign statements. The Warren campaign has refrained from sniping on Twitter or sending allies to go after Biden on TV.
Buttigieg, who laced into Warren at the last debate, said recently that she would further polarize the country. In a appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” he accused her of adopting a “my way or the highway” attitude on health care and lacking “humility” with her calls for putting all Americans into Medicare, whether or not they like their private plan.
Biden’s stumbles have caused concern among Democrats about their ability to beat Trump. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is reconsidering a campaign for president after closing the door to the idea earlier in the year. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
Warren’s campaign swing in North Carolina and South Carolina was an opportunity for her to make some inroads among a constituency where she’s weak and Biden is strong: non-white voters.
At a Latino forum in Raleigh hosted by the group Mijente, she said she’d be “open to suspending deportations” to push Congress to pass an immigration overhaul — a plank that wasn’t in her immigration policy plan.
At a roundtable with educators at Scotts Branch High School in Summerton, South Carolina, she pressed her case for a national health insurance plan, saying that “the idea behind Medicare for All is just to say health care is a basic human right.”
“If you switch to Medicare for All, you don’t go through the state government any more,” she said, implying that Republican governors or legislators wouldn’t be able to hinder its implementation like they have with Obamacare. “That’s an important distinction when you’re in a place like South Carolina.”
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