With Iowa caucuses days away, Democrats begin to trade barbs on the trail

Pella, Iowa — Less than a week from the first presidential primary contest in Iowa, several of the Democratic candidates are starting to draw sharper contrasts with each other.

Pete Buttigieg landed the first blow on Thursday morning, suggesting Joe Biden’s candidacy represents a “Washington playbook.”  And then he implied that Bernie Sanders’ proposed policies are too far out of the mainstream to be achieved.

Initially, Biden seemed to be taking a different tack. He focused his morning speech on criticizing President Trump, and recalled a warning by former President Obama to avoid “circular firing squads” with Democrats.

But later in the day, after a little prodding by reporters, Biden responded to Buttigieg during a quick stop at the Dairy Queen in Pella, Iowa.

Asked by CBS News about Buttigieg’s barb, Biden first called Buttigieg a “good guy,” but suggested the former South Bend mayor and his campaign “must be deciding things are getting a little tough.”

Biden also took the time to contrast his long resume of public service with Buttigieg’s. “I’ve gotten more than 8,600 votes in my life,” a reference to the mayor’s vote tally in his previous election.

While this back-and-forth between Buttigieg and Biden is new, the former vice president has seemed at times to have been caught in a defensive crouch against a barrage of criticism from Sanders on his support for the Iraq War and previous proposals decades ago about freezing Social Security to balance the federal budget.

But Thursday, while surrounded by the hum of ice cream machines, Biden went on offensive when asked about the Vermont senator.

“I’m a Democrat,” Biden said when asked about the greatest differences between the two men, “He says he is not a registered Democrat to the best of my knowledge.” Sanders is running as a Democrat in the presidential race, but in the Senate, he is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Asked by reporters about Sanders’ record on guns, an issue Biden speaks frequently about on the campaign trail, Biden ticked off at least two gun-related positions Sanders once supported: a vote exempting gun manufacturers from lawsuits and also his several votes against the Brady Bill, the 1993 background check legislation.

“I think Bernie has made his verbal amends for his record on guns,” Biden added.

One issue the Sanders campaign is still eager to push Biden on is his record on Social Security.

After CBS News asked Biden several times on Thursday about how voters should perceive his record on social security, the candidate reached into his suit jacket pocket and handed over a two-sided handout of talking points, titled: “BERNIE FALSE ATTACK ON SOCIAL SECURITY”:

“For you,” Biden told CBS News. “l knew you would ask, so I decided to write it up for you so you knew.” 

The sheet appears to be a set of points refuting a Sanders campaign-pushed video a few weeks ago implying Biden agreed with former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s proposal to privatize social security.  

After reviewing the talking points, CBS News still has some questions about Biden’s record on this issue, apart from the video that the Sanders campaign was circulating.

So we’ll keep asking.

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