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'He totally said it' or 'complete BS'? Sanders and Warren voters dig in

By Alex Thompson , Trent Spiner and Stephanie Murray

DES MOINES, Iowa — Every Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders supporter seems to have an opinion on their infamous Dec. 2018 meeting.

One side believes Warren's account that Sanders told her a woman couldn’t beat Donald Trump: “He totally said it! Women are watching, Bernie." The other is just as convinced she embellished or lied for political advantage: “We obviously know that it was complete BS."

Interviews with more than two dozen voters at events for Sanders and Warren last weekend made clear that the hard feelings between the two progressive icons have extended to their supporters. The situation has injected a volatile mix of gender politics and alleged sexism into the final weeks of the campaign, and added another layer of uncertainty to a primary where any number of outcomes remain possible.

Despite Warren and Sanders’ attempts to move on, the fight’s aftermath poses risks for both candidates — potentially hurting Sanders’ standing with female voters and undermining Warren’s attempt to portray herself as the candidate best equipped to unite the party.Even though many voters expressed a desire to move forward, the interviews show that the collision has at least temporarily colored the opinions each candidate's supporters have of the other.

Many Sanders voters see a cynically orchestrated hit piece by Warren or her allies to save her candidacy and hurt Sanders in the final stretch of the campaign, coming more than a year after the meeting took place.

"I mean, it was a mugging," Kurt Ehrenberg, who served as Sanders' New Hampshire political director in 2016 and left his 2020 campaign earlier this year, said of the dispute. He added it caught the Sanders campaign flat-footed: “They didn't have a good plan to deal with it clearly, except to react angrily, and that was the wrong way to react."

Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders chat during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

“I think she feels she's slipping and losing a little momentum and she's a little bit frightened by that," Sanders backer Dale Howard of Nashua, N.H. said after a town hall the candidate held on Saturday. “I can't imagine him saying it.”

Or as Kristine Acevedo, a 48-year-old Boston activist who traveled to Exeter to see Sanders at a town hall, put it, “We obviously know that it was complete BS."

Several people supporting or strongly considering Warren, however, see a stubborn man defensively insisting he said nothing wrong and trying to paint Warren as either oversensitive or a liar.

“I would have rather him said: it was wrong of me to ever give you that impression. Boom. Done,” said Tanya Keith, 48, who works in historic preservation in Des Moines and attended a Planned Parenthood event with Warren on Saturday. Her reaction to the back-and-forth: “He totally said it! Women are watching, Bernie."

“I know what men say to us in rooms and then what they say to us in person to gaslight us, and I just want you to know that I believe you 100 percent,” Keith told Warren during the event, prefacing her question about uniting the party for the general election. She hasn’t decided whom to support but is seriously considering Warren.

“I believe her, just put it that way,” said Brian Guillaume, 32, who works for Iowa House Democrats and is leaning toward supporting Warren. “As the father of two daughers with a wife who sees how misogyny works, the way she looked at the debate, you could tell she seemed shocked when he denied it.”

For Alison Ver Schuer, a staffer for Democrats in the Iowa statehouse, it boils down to this: “Believe women. Just believe women.”

The irreconcilable nature of the two accounts — and why the issue may linger with voters — was highlighted when Warren confronted Sanders on stage after last week's debate. "I think you called me a liar on national TV,” she said. After initially suggesting they talk about the matter another time, Sanders shot back: “You called me a liar.”

Since then, both candidates have tried to get past it. “I have said all I’m going to say on this. You can keep asking the question, but I’m not going to make an additional comment,” Warren told reporters Friday in Newton, Iowa, a sentiment she repeated again Sunday in Des Moines. The two candidates also marched together, arms locked, in South Carolina on Monday ahead of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at Zion Baptist Church.

Sanders has mostly declined to comment, too, but the fraught politics was highlighted Sunday when he seemed to equate the obstacles female candidates to the his own challenge running at 78 years old. “I think everybody has their own sets of problems,” he said. Many Warren supporters saw his remarks as evidence that he likely did tell Warren a woman couldn’t beat Trump.

Passionate supporters and even some campaign surrogates have also kept the argument alive.

“Meaningful progressive unity also should include meaningful accountability — Bernie Sanders, his campaign owe Sen. Warren, her campaign & supporters an apology for accusing her of bad faith lying, unspeakable online abuse before we talk unity,” Murshed Zaheed, a Democratic strategist who supports Warren, wrote on Twitter.

Victoria Dooley, a Sanders surrogate, also weighed in on Twitter. “When I lie on my good friend I always make sure it’s a year after the fact, and only once they’re hammering me in the polls, she wrote sacastically. “But that’s just me.”