Flap with Warren knocks Sanders' strategy off course

WASHINGTON, Jan 17 (Reuters) - The best-laid plans of Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders were upended this week – and his campaign is struggling to get back on track.

Sanders went into the week looking to draw a sharper contrast between his progressive agenda and that of former Vice President Joe Biden, a moderate and his top rival for the Democratic nomination.

Instead, his flap with fellow senator, friend and progressive ally Elizabeth Warren over gender and electability has dominated the news, an unwelcome twist for a campaign that pulled into the top of the race in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire just weeks before the first voting begins.

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Less than three weeks after suffering a heart attack, the Democratic presidential contender is beginning what he's calling a "vigorous" return to campaigning with a rally expected to draw thousands of supporters to New York City on Saturday afternoon.
Less than three weeks after suffering a heart attack, the Democratic presidential contender is beginning what he's calling a "vigorous" return to campaigning with a rally expected to draw thousands of supporters to New York City on Saturday afternoon.
A Bernie2020 campaign sign is help up in the crowd as Sanders co-chair Sen. Nina Turner, joined by local politicians and hospital workers protest the imminent closure of Hahnemann University Hospital at a rally outside the Center City facilities in Philadelphia, PA on July 11, 2019. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, and former Vice President Joe Biden talk following a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., gesture to each other during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
PELLA, IA - JULY 04: An attendee hold a sign for U.S. Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during the 4th of July parade on July 4, 2019 in Pella, Iowa. The 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses will take place on Monday, February 3, 2020. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
PELLA, IA - JULY 04: U.S. Senator and 2020 presidential candidate v (I-VT) waves as he attends the 4th of July parade on July 4, 2019 in Pella, Iowa. The 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses will take place on Monday, February 3, 2020. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
PELLA, IA - JULY 04: U.S. Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attends the 4th of July parade on July 4, 2019 in Pella, Iowa. The 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses will take place on Monday, February 3, 2020. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FLORIDA - JUNE 27: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to the media after the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights at Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders speaks to the press in the Spin Room after participating in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful former US Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders looks on during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
HOMESTEAD, USA - JUNE 27: Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2020 presidential candidate speaks to the media outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children a detention facility for incarcerated youths that have been detained by Homeland Security in Homestead, Florida, United States on June 27, 2019. (Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui T./Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A supporter of Democratic presidential candidate and US Senator, Bernie Sanders, holds up a sign during a rally inside the gymnasium at Clinton College, a historically black college in Rock Hill, SC on June, 23 2019. - Many of the Democratic candidates running for president were in South Carolina over the weekend to make appearances at the Democratic Party Convention and win the hearts of black voters. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
Danny Glover (L), Hollywood actor and supporter of Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, listens as Sanders gives a speech inside the gymnasium at Clinton College, a historically black college in Rock Hill, SC on June, 23 2019. Glover has been on the campaign trail opening for the Senator during his swing through South Carolina. - Many of the Democratic candidates running for president were in South Carolina over the weekend to make appearances at the Democratic Party Convention and win the hearts of black voters. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic Senator and presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, greets supporters after a speech at a packed rally inside the gymnasium at Clinton College, a historically black college, before a rally in Rock Hill, SC on June, 23 2019. - Many of the Democratic candidates running for president were in South Carolina over the weekend to make appearances at the Democratic Party Convention and win the hearts of black voters. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic Senator and presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, addresses the crowd at a packed rally inside the gymnasium at Clinton College, a historically black college, before a rally in Rock Hill, SC on June, 22 2019. - Many of the Democratic candidates running for president were in South Carolina over the weekend to make appearances at the Democratic Party Convention and win the hearts of black voters. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - 2019/05/31: U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, speaks at a campaign rally in Pasadena, California. The 2020 presidential hopeful spoke to supporters at the Pasadena Convention Center. This weekend Sanders will also attend the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - 2019/05/31: Supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders are seen holding letters that spell Bernie during a campaign rally in Pasadena, California. The 2020 presidential hopeful spoke to supporters at the Pasadena Convention Center. This weekend Sanders will also attend the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - MAY 31: Sen. Bernie Sanders appears at a campaign rally at the Pasadena Convention Center on May 31, 2019 in Pasadena, California. Sanders and three other candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination - Sen. Kamala Harris, Julian Castro and Gov. Jay Inslee - will field questions at the Immigrant Unity and Freedom Presidential Forum of 2019 nearby, following the rally. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - 2019/05/31: Supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders hold Bernie placards during a campaign rally in Pasadena, California. The 2020 presidential hopeful spoke to supporters at the Pasadena Convention Center. This weekend Sanders will also attend the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
MONTPELIER, VT - MAY 25: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in the capital of his home state of Vermont on May 25, 2019 in Montpelier, Vermont. This was the first Vermont rally of Sanders' 2020 campaign. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
SCHENLEY PLAZA, PITTSBURGH, PA, UNITED STATES - 2019/04/14: People holding Bernie signs during a Bernie Sanders rally campaign ahead of United States Presidential election. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rally in Pittsburgh, PA on the campaign trail for the bid in the 2020 election. (Photo by Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SCHENLEY PLAZA, PITTSBURGH, PA, UNITED STATES - 2019/04/14: Bernie Sanders speaks to the crowd during his rally campaign ahead of United States Presidential election. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rally in Pittsburgh, PA on the campaign trail for the bid in the 2020 election. (Photo by Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SCHENLEY PLAZA, PITTSBURGH, PA, UNITED STATES - 2019/04/14: Bernie Sanders speaks to the crowd during his rally campaign ahead of United States Presidential election. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rally in Pittsburgh, PA on the campaign trail for the bid in the 2020 election. (Photo by Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SCHENLEY PLAZA, PITTSBURGH, PA, UNITED STATES - 2019/04/14: Bernie Sanders speaks to the crowd during his rally campaign ahead of United States Presidential election. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rally in Pittsburgh, PA on the campaign trail for the bid in the 2020 election. (Photo by Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 5: Flanked by Rev. Al Sharpton (L) and Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson (R) look on as Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at the National Action Network's annual convention, April 5, 2019 in New York City. A dozen 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are speaking at the organization's convention this week. Founded by Rev. Al Sharpton in 1991, the National Action Network is one of the most influential African American organizations dedicated to civil rights in America. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 05: Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I -VT) attends the National Action Network's annual convention on April 5, 2019 in New York City. A dozen 2020 Democratic presidential candidates will speak at the organization's convention this week. Founded by Rev. Al Sharpton in 1991, the National Action Network is one of the most influential African American organizations dedicated to civil rights in America. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 24: Supporters of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) listen during a campaign rally at Great Meadow Park in Fort Mason on March 24, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Thousands are expected to attend the rally as Sanders continues his California swing in preparation for the early 2020 primaries (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 24: Volunteer Ena Silva wears a hat she decorated during a campaign rally for 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at Great Meadow Park in Fort Mason on March 24, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Thousands are expected to attend the rally as Sanders continues his California swing in preparation for the early 2020 primaries (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 24: Souvenir t-shirts are seen outside a campaign rally for 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at Great Meadow Park in Fort Mason on March 24, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Thousands are expected to attend the rally as Sanders continues his California swing in preparation for the early 2020 primaries (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 24: Judy Canham holds a doll of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during a campaign rally at Great Meadow Park in Fort Mason on March 24, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Thousands are expected to attend the rally as Sanders continues his California swing in preparation for the early 2020 primaries (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 24: Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a campaign rally at the Great Meadow Park in Fort Mason on March 24, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Sanders, who is so far the top Democratic candidate in the race, is making the rounds in California which is considered a crucial 'first five' primary state by the Sanders campaign. California will hold on early primary on March 3, 2020. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 20: Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) gives a speech during a single-day strike of University of California research and technical workers on the UCLA Westwood campus March 20, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Union leaders and students from UCLA also participated in the activities. Similar demonstrations were held at UC medical facilities across the state. Sen. Sanders formally announced in February that he is running for President in the 2020 campaign. (Photo bu Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - MARCH 14: 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) addresses the crowd at the Royal Family Life Center on March 14, 2019 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Sanders received 26 percent of the South Carolina Democratic vote in the 2020 race, eventually losing the nomination to Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - MARCH 14: 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) greets the crowd at the Royal family Life Center on March 14, 2019 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Sanders received 26 percent of the South Carolina Democratic vote in the 2020 race, eventually losing the nomination to Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
CONCORD, NH - MARCH 10: Supporters of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during a campaign event on March 10, 2019 in Concord, New Hampshire. Sanders who is so far the top Democratic candidate in the race is making the rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 09: 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) greets potential supporters at a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on March 9, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Sanders who is so far the top Democratic candidate in the race is making the rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire. (Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images)
Senator Bernie Sanders launched his 2020 presidential campaign at his alma mater, Brooklyn College, in his hometown Brooklyn, New York, US, on 2 March 2019. (Photo by Selcuk Acar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders, Independent US Senator from Vermont speaks on stage as he kicks-off his campaign for the 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections on a Democratic ticket at a rally at Brooklyn College, in Brooklyn, NY on March 2, 2019. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders, Independent US Senator from Vermont speaks on stage as he kicks-off his campaign for the 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections on a Democratic ticket at a rally at Brooklyn College, in Brooklyn, NY on March 2, 2019. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 02: Bernie Sanders pins are on display during his first presidential campaign rally at Brooklyn College on March 02, 2019 in the Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images)
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The U.S. senator from Vermont has found himself on the defensive after Warren accused him of telling her during a 2018 meeting that a woman could not beat Republican President Donald Trump in the November election. Sanders has denied saying that.

The disagreement between the two liberals grew more inflamed after a CNN microphone caught Warren telling Sanders he made her out to be a liar at Tuesday’s debate in Iowa.

The back-and-forth has had their supporters at odds on social media, distressing progressives who want to present a unified front against a "corporate Democrat" going into the 2020 nominating contests, which kick off on Feb. 3 in Iowa.

So far, the dispute does not appear to have hurt Sanders, who saw his support among independents and Democrats rise by 2 points to 20% - ahead of Biden's 19% - in the past week, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll conducted on Wednesday and Thursday.

Warren was at 12 percent in the poll. Her momentum has stalled since November, when she detailed how she would finance the Medicare for All government health insurance proposal she and Sanders have championed.

Progressive groups worry that bad blood could push some supporters of either Sanders or Warren to defect to a more moderate candidate such as Biden or former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg if their candidate falters.

The Sanders campaign sought on Thursday to turn the conversation away from Warren and back to Biden, with whom Sanders disagrees on matters ranging from foreign policy to trade.

Sanders' supporters have shared videos of past speeches where Biden spoke in favor of the invasion of Iraq, which Sanders opposed.

“The focus for progressives should be on making sure that we have a progressive nominee, and the person standing in the way of having a nominee with the strongest progressive record is Joe Biden,” Sanders speechwriter David Sirota told Reuters.

Other damage-control efforts were under way. Almost 20 progressive groups said on Thursday they were joining together to mount a unity campaign aimed at calming tensions between Warren and Sanders and ensuring that a liberal becomes the nominee.

A Democratic strategist aligned with Warren who asked not to be identified suggested her campaign was moving on from the matter and focusing on “driving home her core campaign themes.”

Warren's supporters have neither been encouraged nor barred from talking about the 2018 meeting, the strategist said.

Warren's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Both Warren and Sanders, along with presidential rival Amy Klobuchar, will have to take time away from the campaign trail ahead of the Iowa nominating contest to serve as jurors in the Senate impeachment trial of Trump.

 

'TO THE WALL'

The Sanders-Warren conflict was forcing the most passionate supporters of each candidate “to the wall” – making them take sides against the other, said Charles Chamberlain, chair of Democracy for America, which is leading the effort to defuse tensions.

“We’re trying to bring them back to the table,” Chamberlain said.

That may be difficult. Some of Sanders' online supporters have reacted angrily to the spat, using the hashtags #NeverWarren and #WarrenIsASnake or posted the snake emoji in the feeds of Warren and her supporters.

“Boy what a bad actor (Warren) turned out to be,” RoseAnn DeMoro, a labor activist who campaigns for Sanders’ universal healthcare plan, tweeted on Wednesday before CNN's audio release of the post-debate exchange between Warren and Sanders. "She betrayed a friend, undermined the movement, and all for political opportunism."

Some voters who spoke to Reuters expressed alarm.

“Them arguing is just going to hurt one of them in the long run,” Allison Plendl, 32, said at a Buttigieg event in Algona, Iowa. “It’s just giving ammunition to the other side."

The Warren camp saw some blowback on Thursday when Michael Pedersen, a New Hampshire state representative who had backed Warren, switched to Klobuchar after Tuesday’s debate, Klobuchar's campaign said.

Pedersen said he now viewed Klobuchar as more likely to beat Trump than Warren because he believes the U.S. senator from Minnesota appeals to a wider swath of voters.

Others saw Warren getting the better of the exchange with Sanders.

Michael Ceraso, a Democratic operative who worked for Sanders’ campaign in 2016, said Warren was able to make a strong argument for her own electability in November on the debate stage before millions of Americans.

“It was a breakout moment,” he said. (Reporting by Simon Lewis and James Oliphant; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker in Washington, Michael Martina in Iowa and Chris Kahn in New York; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney)

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