PELLA, Iowa — In one of his most direct confrontations yet with his top rival in the Iowa caucuses, former Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday called out Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont for not being a Democrat even as Sanders makes a competitive run for that party’s presidential nomination. Biden also jabbed Sanders’ record on gun control in among his most detailed remarks on the matter to date.
“I’m a Democrat,” said Biden, who moments earlier had told reporters at a Dairy Queen in the state that the contrasts between himself and his top rivals were “self-evident.” Asked to elaborate, Biden swiped at Sanders, who represents Vermont as an independent in the Senate. “Well, he says he’s not. He says — you know, he’s not registered as a Democrat, to the best of my knowledge. And Bernie has a different view.”
The remarks, in response to reporters’ questions, capped a day of sparring among the leading Democratic presidential contenders in the leadoff caucus state. Earlier in the day, Pete Buttigieg escalated his attacks on Biden as well as Sanders, taking direct aim at the two leading presidential candidates as he tries to gain ground before the Iowa caucuses. And Biden, when asked about Sanders’ record on gun control, directly attacked him for opposing one of the most popular Democratic-backed gun measures in the 1990s.
“I think Bernie has made his verbal amends for his record on guns,” he said in a barely veiled jab. Asked whether that was sufficient, he said, “Well, yeah, I do. I think he means it. I think that, you know, the fact that he gave the gun manufacturers an exemption that no other, no other industry in the world — in the United States — has, I think he regrets having done that.”
Biden also noted that Sanders had voted against the Brady Bill, which instituted background checks on handguns, five times. “I think he’s regretted that. I think he’s changed his mind,” Biden said. “So I take him at his word.”
Asked for comment, Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, replied, “Last-minute cheap barbs of desperation aren’t a good look for a candidate who proclaims his desire to unite the party.”
Biden and Sanders have clashed before, on issues ranging from Social Security to the Iraq war.
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, dismissed disputes between the two men as a kind of politics of the past, saying their debates repeat the party’s mistakes.
“This is not the time to get caught up in reliving arguments from before,” he told several hundred people gathered in a hotel ballroom in Decorah, Iowa. “The less 2020 resembles 2016 in our party, the better.”
In his stump speeches and in answers at campaign events, Buttigieg has steadfastly avoided direct hits on his opponents, instead drawing opaque contrasts that reporters and the most engaged Democratic voters have understood to be whacks at Biden and Sanders.
His decision to call out his chief rivals by name underscores the pressure Buttigieg faces for a strong finish and signals an intensification of a race that has been relatively polite for nearly a year, as it enters its final days before caucusing Monday.
“I hear Vice President Biden saying that this is no time to take a risk on someone new,” he said. “But history has shown us that the biggest risk we could take with a very important election coming up is to look to the same Washington playbook.”
Buttigieg also argued that Sanders’ plans for “Medicare for All” and free college go further than what most in the Democratic Party can support.
“I hear Sen. Sanders calling for a kind of politics that says you got to go all the way here or nothing else counts,” he said. “It’s coming at a moment when we actually have a historic majority — not just a line around what it is we’re against, but agreeing on what it is we’re for.”
Speaking in Newton on Thursday, in an apparent response to address Buttigieg’s remarks, Biden warned against letting “this Democratic race slide into a negative treatment of one another. We can’t let this happen. The temptation is too much for some running. We just can’t do it. As Barack said, the last thing we need to do is form a circle, a circular firing squad.”
He was more direct later, when speaking with reporters in Pella.
“He must be deciding things are getting a little tight,” he said. Asked about differences between himself and opponents such as Buttigieg and Sanders, he said, “You guys have seen Pete. He’s a good guy. You’ve seen Bernie. You’ve seen me. I mean, some things are just self-evident — the contrast. You know, I’ve gotten more than 8,600 votes in my life.”
The earlier comments from Buttigieg were in keeping with his effort to paint himself as the type of transformational figure he argues neither Biden nor Sanders can be because of their decades of experience in Washington’s political battles.
For days the Buttigieg campaign has been sending out fundraising appeals warning that it would be too “risky” to nominate Sanders and suggesting that Trump wants to face the Vermont senator in November.
“We risk nominating a candidate who cannot beat Donald Trump in November — and Trump’s team knows this,” Buttigieg’s deputy campaign manager, Hari Sevugan, wrote in one of the emails Tuesday. “They’re working to make sure it happens.”
It is a more aggressive version of the political contrast he has sought to paint in Iowa since Labor Day, when he was the first of the leading candidates to begin broadcasting TV ads in the state. He highlighted those messages with subtle arguments against the progressive politics of Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who at the time was the state’s polling leader.
Although Buttigieg began his TV ad campaign in Iowa first, there are fewer ads on the air for him in the final week before the caucuses than there are for his competitors. Buttigieg is being outspent by Sanders, Warren and the super political action committee backing Biden — though with the local airwaves saturated by political ads, there can be just as much value in making news by going on the attack on the stump as there is in buying more TV time.
Pressed by reporters earlier this week, Buttigieg had resisted calling Sanders a risk himself and would not say if he believed Sanders could beat Trump. On Thursday, he cast his new remarks as airing an “honest and respectful” difference between the visions of the three men. He also acknowledged that he needs a “strong finish” in the Iowa race.
“This is certainly the moment when folks are choosing, and I want to make sure everyone understands the choice between us,” he told reporters. “We’re competing; it’s a respectful but important competition about what the best approach is going to be.”
In a moment when many Democrats want party unity around the goal of defeating Trump, there’s a chance that the harsher hits could backfire. The primary race has been notable for its lack of particularly tough attacks, with the candidates often circling one another warily even in the final days before caucusing begins.
Aides to other candidates said Iowa Democrats aren’t eager for a contentious race. “I don’t think there’s an appetite for the negativity among Iowa caucusgoers,” said Norm Sterzenbach, who advises Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s caucus strategy. “I think historically when there have been aggressive negative campaigns, it has not necessarily worked out the way the candidates had wanted it to.”
Now that Sanders and Biden are ahead of him, Buttigieg has shifted from an argument against a progressive revolution toward one focused around his rivals’ age, albeit without explicitly calling Sanders, 78, and Biden, 77, old.
Many of Buttigieg’s campaign stops have the words “TURN THE PAGE” spelled out in large blue letters behind the stage, a reminder of both his own far younger age, 38, and the idea that he would be free of the political entanglements and baggage that he ascribes to Biden and Sanders.
A political newcomer, he argues, would have both a better chance of defeating Trump in a general election and a more unfettered mandate to enact progressive policies in Washington.