For the first time since launching his first insurgent bid for the Democratic presidential nomination almost five years ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) finds himself under the harsh scrutiny of his leading rivals ahead of a critical debate Tuesday night in Des Moines.
Two polls out in recent days show Sanders at or near the top of the pack in Iowa, the crucial first-in-the-nation caucus state. He has garnered endorsements from progressive organizations and legislators and from a top union in New Hampshire, whose voters get a second crack at the candidates a week after the Iowa caucuses.
And where many Democratic candidates and leading figures within the party once had little reason to engage with the most liberal candidate in the field, they now all have incentives to contrast themselves with Sanders.
“The closer we get, the stakes get higher, and the candidates that are left on the debate stage think they have a chance to win Iowa, and they have to go through Bernie Sanders to do it,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic strategist who is unaligned in the race.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a friend and ally, sees Sanders as an impediment to her own pool of progressive voters.
She expressed outrage over the weekend after Sanders volunteers were reportedly given scripts casting her as a candidate of the elite unable to grow beyond the Democratic base.
The Warren campaign also confirmed a CNN report Monday that Sanders had told her he did not believe a woman could win the White House, a report Sanders vehemently denied.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is likely to use his time on the debate stage to contrast his foreign policy experience with Sanders, positioning himself as a steady hand at a moment when the United States faces an ongoing crisis with Iran.
Biden backers point to Sanders’s involvement in the Cold War politics of 1980s Latin America as one of the attacks he would face from President Trump‘s campaign.
And a pair of Midwestern moderates, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), see an opportunity to make their own cases that they are the most electable candidates by contrasting themselves with Sanders’s proposals to implement a “Medicare for All” program and to vastly expand existing social programs.
“Voters are getting to a point where they want to know the differences between the candidates,” said Lily Adams, who directed communications for Sen. Kamala Harris‘s (D-Calif.) presidential campaign. “If there’s going to be discussion on issue difference or record differences, the conclusion to that is, how does that make you more or less likely to beat Trump?”
Sanders, no shrinking violet, has in recent days engaged in his own flurry of attacks on his rivals. Alongside the volunteer script critical of Warren, top Sanders surrogates over the weekend castigated Biden for his vote to authorize President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq.
“Joe Biden’s vote for the war in Iraq was a serious blunder, and it raises questions about both Mr. Biden’s electability and foreign policy judgment,” said Sam Bell, a Rhode Island state senator who backs Sanders. “Bernie is far and away the most electable candidate, and he is right to speak out about the severe electability concerns posed by Biden’s record.”
The heightened attacks highlight a growing sense of tension within the Democratic field as Iowa voters remain unsettled just weeks before the caucuses on Feb. 3
A Des Moines Register poll out Friday showed Sanders leading his three top rivals with 20 percent of the vote, with fourth-place Biden at 15 percent. A Monmouth poll out Monday showed Biden at 24 percent, with Sanders in second at 18 percent and Buttigieg and Warren close behind.
Sanders is unused to the front-runner’s mantle. For much of the race, and despite polling showing him nipping at Biden’s heels for the lead in national surveys, he has been a virtual afterthought as media outlets and Democratic voters take close looks at relative newcomers like Warren and Buttigieg.
“He’s almost like the wallpaper,” McKenna said. “Bernie Sanders has just always been there.”
But Sanders has always enjoyed two substantial advantages over his rivals: He has a significant, loyal fan base and five years of organizing a grassroots money machine that makes him the best-funded candidate in the field.
Sanders will not suffer the same fate as other candidates like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who ended his campaign on Monday after struggling to raise the money to remain competitive.
“For anybody who’s been involved in this race or knows how the Democratic nomination is won, it was foolish to think that Sanders couldn’t be the nominee. The best thing that prepares you to run for president is to have run for president once before,” Adams said. “He has a very devoted group of supporters who are going to come out and support him, and that is an advantage that honestly no other candidate has.”
Sanders and his chief rivals have now pivoted to their closing argument, one that involves a new factor that did not exist in 2016 and that Democratic voters say is their most important priority: defeating President Trump.
“The animating factor that was just not there [in 2016] is Trump,” said Adams, who worked on Hillary Clinton‘s campaign that year. “There was actually more discussion on distinctions on issues in the 2016 primary than there is in the 2020 primary, because voters are asking not what is your record on immigration or what is your record on gun safety, but can you beat Trump?”
Where Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) debated the size of each others’ hands in 2016, the Democratic contest this year has been tame by comparison. Several times, candidates have telegraphed attacks only to pull back when they are standing next to their rivals onstage.
Even in 2016, when Sanders emerged as Clinton’s chief rival, her most sustained attack on Sanders revolved around his past support for gun rights.
Now, with just weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses kick off, the leading candidates may decide that launching an attack on stage is too great a risk, that they do not want to suffer the same fates as Harris or former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, whose debate-night fireworks failed to produce sustained gains.
“So many voters are tuning in at the last minute, and I think it’s entirely possible that these candidates make the calculation that their positive message is stronger than throwing elbows on stage,” McKenna said. But she added: “I don’t see how Sanders will escape scrutiny in the lead up to it and around it, because that’s what happens to the front-runner.”