Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren clashed in a highly anticipated exchange at Tuesday night's Democratic primary debate — with Sanders vehemently denying that he said a woman could not capture the presidency in 2020 as Warren sought to make a forceful case for her electability.
"I didn't say it. And 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," Sanders said. "Anybody knows me knows that it's incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States."
Sanders went on to claim that he "deferred" to Warren before announcing his 2016 presidential candidacy, first waiting for her to decide whether she would mount her own White House bid four years ago.
"There was a movement to draft Senator Warren to run for president," Sanders said. "And you know what, I stayed back. Senator Warren decided not to run, and then I did — I did run afterwards."
Responding to Sanders, Warren noted that "Bernie is my friend," but stuck by her previous assertion that Sanders did indeed make the gloomy appraisal of a potential female presidential campaign.
"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 Tom Steyer.
"Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they've been in are the women: [Sen. Amy Klobuchar] and me," Warren said. "And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me."
Sanders and Warren's collision was widely expected in the aftermath of a CNN report on Monday stating that Sanders made his alleged assessment during a private meeting with Warren in 2018, ahead of their presidential campaign launches.
The year-long détente between the pair of progressive icons had already been shattered over the weekend after POLITICO reported that Sanders volunteers were attacking Warren as a candidate with a “highly-educated, more affluent” bloc of support who could not expand the Democratic base in 2020.
Weighing in on the controversy at the debate on Tuesday, Klobuchar acknowledged that "people have said" a woman cannot defeat President Donald Trump in November, but invoked the recently elected female Democratic governors of Kansas and Michigan.
"I point out that you don't have to be the tallest person in the room," Klobuchar said. "James Madison was 5 foot 4. You don't have to be the skinniest person in the room. You don't have to be the loudest person. You have to be competent."
The brawl devolved when Sanders re-entered the fray, as he sought to challenge Warren's declaration that she alone among the debate participants had vanquished a GOP incumbent during the previous three decades. Warren ousted Republican Sen. Scott Brown in the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race.
"Well, just to set the record straight, I defeated an incumbent Republican running for Congress," Sanders said, referencing his election to the House of Representatives in 1990. The independent Sanders defeated Republican Rep. Peter Smith.
"Wasn't that 30 years ago?" replied a seemingly puzzled Warren, as a wave of uncomfortable laughter emitted from the debate hall crowd.
Sanders insisted that "30 years ago is 1990, as a matter of fact," and said "nobody believes" that a female candidate cannot be elected president.
In her final remarks on the matter, Warren cited similar examples of discrimination against racial and religious minorities that have plagued previous aspirants for public office — including 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."
It was Biden, however, who moderators afforded the last word regarding the viability of a female White House candidacy.
The former vice president, who has drawn scrutiny amid the Sanders-Warren feud for his comments earlier this month about Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, said "women can win" and mentioned his work stumping for female congressional candidates ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
"The best group I have ever campaigned for, in terms of competence. But the real issue is who can bring the whole party together [and] represents all elements of the party," Biden said, arguing he has "the broadest coalition of anyone running up here."
Although Sanders and Warren did not address the dust-up again for the remainder of the debate, a brief video of the senators interacting at the conclusion of the televised forum suggested tensions remained high.
As the Democratic candidates dispersed from the stage, Sanders extended his hand to Warren, which she appeared to rebuff. The two competitors then engaged in a tense back-and-forth as Steyer looked on, culminating in a seemingly bitter parting when Sanders raised his hands and turned away.