Barbs start to fly ahead of first Democratic debate

Democratic candidates for president are increasingly throwing barbs and exchanging swipes with one another ahead of their first debate in just three weeks. 

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Warren, Pressley introduce bill to make it a crime for police officers to deny medical care to people in custody Senate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers MORE (N.Y.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE took aim at one another over former Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenPolitical world mourns loss of comedian Jerry Stiller Maher to Tara Reade on timing of sexual assault allegation: ‘Why wait until Biden is our only hope?’ Democrats begin to confront Biden allegations MORE’s (D-Minn.) resignation, with Buttigieg implicitly criticizing Gillibrand by saying he wouldn’t have pressured Franken to resign over sexual misconduct allegations based on what was known at the time.

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Gillibrand was the first senator to call for Franken’s resignation last year, and she’s been criticized by some Democrats for doing so. 

“For my part, I chose to stand by eight women,” Gillibrand told SiriusXM host Zerlina Maxwell on “Signal Boost” Tuesday, a day after Buttigieg’s initial comments at an MSNBC town hall. “I would stand by those women again. I value women, so my position is really clear.”

Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.) have taken swipes at former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE over his willingness to attend high-dollar fundraisers with Wall Street supporters. Warren also took a shot at Biden over his willingness to work with Republicans. 

Biden is the front-runner in the race, and Sanders and Warren are both fighting to catch him. The two senators are also rivals themselves as they battle to be the pick for progressive Democrats.

Over the weekend at the California Democratic Convention, several Democratic candidates sparred over socialism. 

After former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperGun control group rolls out first round of Senate endorsements The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ Hickenlooper ethics questions open him up to attack MORE said that “socialism is not the answer” if the party wants to defeat President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE, Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeInslee calls on Trump to ‘stay out of Washington state’s business’ Seattle mayor responds to Trump: ‘Go back to your bunker’ Trump warns he will take back Seattle from ‘ugly Anarchists’ if local leaders don’t act MORE fired back.

“I’m a governor who doesn’t think we should be ashamed of our progressive values,” he said to whoops and cheers from a liberal audience. 

The battles are hardly surprising in a 24-candidate race that is just beginning to take shape. 

But the latest sparring mostly reflects two dynamics in the emerging primary fight.

One is the need for candidates such as Sanders and Warren to take Biden down a peg. 

New polls released this week showed Biden with a double-digit national lead, underscoring his status as the front-runner. 

As a result, candidates are going to be under pressure to step up their attacks on Biden to try to bring him back to the pack.

Separately, more than half the candidates are struggling to get out of the gate. Those Democrats need to make headlines to find any traction at all, and battling with other candidates is one way to do it.

Hickenlooper’s remarks about socialism might not have gone over well with many progressive voters, but they won him attention and might win him some votes down the road. 

Gillibrand also gained some headlines when she was asked about Buttigieg’s remarks.

“Differentiation in a crowded field is tough, so expect sharper elbows to break clustering in the polls,” said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle.

The barbs may be just a preview of what to expect in Miami on June 26 and 27, when 20 Democrats will take part in the debates over two days. 

Still, the sharp words can also come with some downsides. 

The bitter primary battle between Sanders and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE left bruised feelings and some Sanders supporters at home on Election Day.

“I thought we learned our lesson the last time,” one strategist said. “These sorts of things don’t evaporate when the general election begins. The wounds actually deepen.” 

The strategist questioned whether the headlines were worth it, saying it would be surprising if the small tiffs were making anyone pay attention beyond the immediate news cycle. “It’s doing more harm than good,” the strategist said. 

But Democratic strategist Eddie Vale said the sharp exchanges are “totally normal and expected” and expects the party to come together in the end to defeat Trump.

“Within our party there are some big and small differences on policies as well as overall strategy of how to beat Trump,” Vale said. “And that’s normal and healthy to have that debate. These fights will also strengthen the candidates and show who can give and take a punch. If you can’t deal with some criticism in a Democratic primary, you certainly aren’t ready to go toe-to-toe with Trump.”

The GOP primary fight in 2016 was one of the nastiest on record. At one point, Trump accused Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote The Hill’s Morning Report – Trump’s public standing sags after Floyd protests GOP senators introduce resolution opposing calls to defund the police MORE’s (R-Texas) father of being involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Cruz called Trump a “pathological liar” and a “moron.” 

“The man cannot tell the truth, but he combines it with being a narcissist. A narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen,” Cruz said after Trump’s insinuations about his father. 

In the end, Republicans for the most part rallied around Trump. 

“No one thought that Trump would win the primary, but he made it through by being the strongest candidate in the field,” Vale said.  “And the same will happen on our side this time.”

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