DES MOINES — Hours ahead of the final debate before the Iowa Democratic caucuses, a long-simmering question within the party was thrust to the forefront: Can a woman defeat President Trump?

It started Monday when a CNN report outlined a 2018 one-on-one meeting between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in which he allegedly told her that a female candidate could not defeat Trump in November. Warren later confirmed the report, saying such a conversation had taken place.

Sanders has heatedly denied making that statement during the discussion at Warren’s home in Washington, contending that he merely outlined what he said would be Trump’s efforts to defeat another female candidate.

The dispute was a remarkably personal and public disagreement between two candidates who had worked as allies throughout the campaign. It was also unavoidable that it would explode, as it played on the still-raw wounds of the 2016 campaign and continued consternation by some sympathetic to Hillary Clinton that Sanders and his backers were insufficiently supportive of her in that contest.

Less than three weeks before the first voting takes place in Iowa, a worry that voters long have contended with broke into the open: With Democrats so eager to defeat a president they see as a racist, sexist bully, is the safest bet to defeat him a man?

Former vice president Joe Biden elliptically referred to that calculation earlier this month when he noted that Clinton faced “unfair” sexism during her campaign.

“That’s not going to happen with me,” Biden said.

The sharp break in recollections by Sanders and Warren were particularly unnerving for the liberal wing of the party, fearful that divisions between the two most leftward candidates would usher in a moderate nominee.

“Too much is at stake right now for mutual destruction,” said Rebecca Katz, a liberal strategist who plans to vote for Warren but also likes Sanders. “Our eyes need to be on the prize.”

A statement from an influential union said as much.

“We can’t afford distractions. The only way any candidate can beat either Sanders or Warren is by dividing them. This looks like a desperate attempt to fracture a coalition of the candidates that represent the most popular ideas among working people,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backs Warren, said in its own statement that “a back-and-forth about this private meeting is counter-productive for progressives. In this pivotal moment of the campaign, progressives must work together to defeat Donald Trump and prevent a less-electable establishment candidate like Joe Biden from getting the nomination.”

The statement added: “Going into the debate, Warren supporters should be talking about why her inspiring agenda and popularity across the party makes her best suited to unify and energize Democrats.”

Others underscored the personal impact of the disputed words.

“Yes, many people have told me a woman can’t win in 2020,” tweeted author and columnist Connie Schultz, who is married to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who considered a presidential run. “This is fear speaking, & it has sparked meaningful conversations. But a woman hears this differently when she is the one who is running. It feels personal because it is. Can we please not lose sight of this difference?”

The conflict has effectively amplified what has been an impassioned, if somewhat below radar, conversation in Democratic circles. A year ago, a record number of women were sworn into Congress. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the first female House speaker, was back in power. And activists were excited about a new generation of women joining the presidential contest.

Since then, though, two men — Sanders and Biden — have ascended to the top of the polls, joined in some of them by former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Several female candidates failed to gain traction and ended their campaigns, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who made an explicit appeal on gender issues. These trends have been concerning to many Democratic women, who feel their party is not giving all candidates a fair shake.

“Almost everyone running represents someone that hasn’t been elected before,” said Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at Emily’s List. “We’re hanging that on the women.”

Sanders and Warren have shown little appetite to continue their extraordinary dispute; neither candidate broke from their preparations for Tuesday’s debate to elaborate on their Monday comments.

But the nature of the topic and the timing of the dispute — coming three weeks before the Iowa caucuses and hours before Tuesday night’s debate — ensured its continued prominence. Sanders and Warren will join four other candidates at the debate here in Des Moines.

It will likely be the final time the major contenders will appear together on national television before Iowa holds the first nominating contest on Feb. 3. And it will be the first joint public appearance for Sanders and Warren since their relationship took a contentious turn.

The clash centered on their differing accounts of a private conversation about gender and politics at Warren’s home in 2018, the details of which were first reported by CNN.

“I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” Warren said in a statement providing her recollection of the discussion. She said that the topic just “came up.”

Two people with knowledge of the conversation, however, told The Washington Post that Warren had asked Sanders whether he thought a female candidate could defeat Trump, and Sanders had replied with his worry about Trump’s tactics. The two spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect private conversations.

In a statement issued Monday, Sanders said it is “ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win.”

Warren, in a statement issued later, disagreed with his recollection.

“I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” she said, adding: “I have no interest in discussing this private meeting any further because Bernie and I have far more in common than our differences on punditry.”

Monday’s exchange followed an flare-up less than 24 hours earlier, when Warren accused Sanders of “sending out volunteers to trash me,” following a report in Politico that a Sanders campaign script instructed volunteers to tell voters leaning toward Warren that her popularity was limited to the rich and educated — effectively denigrating her electability.

Sanders sought to distance himself from that controversy, saying, “We have hundreds of employees. Elizabeth Warren has hundreds of employees. And people sometimes say things that they shouldn’t.” His campaign declined to comment further.

The turbulence occurs amid two colliding changes in the first-voting state. Sanders has gained steam in Iowa since the fall, polls show, and narrowly occupied the top spot in one recent survey amid signs that Warren has faded. Biden, Buttigieg and the two more liberal candidates are tightly bunched overall.

At the same time, Warren has been putting more emphasis on her gender, seeking to re-energize the anti-Trump passion that gave rise to women’s marches and a high turnout of female voters in 2018.

Inside the Sanders campaign, there has been a push for the senator to sharpen his contrast with Biden, not Warren. Some officials are hopeful that during the debate, he will highlight his differences with Biden on the Iraq War, Biden’s past comments about cutting Social Security and the way they have dealt with issues impacting African Americans.

Biden appeared at a campaign office in Des Moines on Monday with state Attorney General Tom Miller, whose support he recently won. As they greeted supporters making phone calls, the two men sought to project a sense of calm.

“Now is really the time we need Joe Biden more than other times,” said Miller, who argued that Biden’s ability to defeat Trump and bridge divisions made him the right candidate for the moment.

Biden gave brief remarks, saying a “battle for the soul of America was underway.” He did not respond to questions reporters shouted at him, including one about Sanders and Warren.

Twelve major candidates are in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, with three weeks to go before the first votes are cast. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) dropped out Monday, following Julián Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, and self-help author Marianne Williamson.

The candidates: Six candidates hit the donation and polling requirements to make the stage for the Jan. 14 debate: former vice president Joe Biden; former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.); Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); billionaire investor Tom Steyer; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). It’s the first time this cycle that Democrats will have a debate stage with no nonwhite candidates.

Where they stand: Candidates have laid out where they stand on a number of issues, including economic inequality, health care, immigration, changes to government, climate change, education and foreign policy. Answer some of the questions yourself and see who agrees with you.

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